pious

adjective

pi·​ous ˈpī-əs How to pronounce pious (audio)
1
a
: marked by or showing reverence for deity and devotion to divine worship
b
: marked by conspicuous religiosity
a hypocrite—a thing all pious words and uncharitable deedsCharles Reade
2
: sacred or devotional as distinct from the profane or secular : religious
a pious opinion
3
: showing loyal reverence for a person or thing : dutiful
4
a
: marked by sham or hypocrisy
b
: marked by self-conscious virtue : virtuous
5
: deserving commendation : worthy
a pious effort
piously adverb
piousness noun

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The Complicated Uses of Pious

Pious has a bit of an image problem. From the beginning of its use in the 15th century this Latin descendant has been used to describe those who are simply very religious—that is, who are deeply devoted to their religion—but it has for centuries also described those who make a show of their religiousness and use it to assert their superiority. We see both in literature:

She sent for a minister, too, a serious, pious, good man, and applied herself with such earnestness, by his assistance, to the work of a sincere repentance, that I believe, and so did the minister too, that she was a true penitent….
— Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders, 1722

There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve. It is the pious slave-breeder devoting the proceeds of every tenth slave to buy a Sunday's liberty for the rest.
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854

Over the years other meanings have developed too. Pious can be used positively to describe those who are dutiful or virtuous, or things that are worthy. And it can be used negatively to describe hypocrisy. It is also used neutrally to distinguish what is religious from what is nonreligious in content, as in this humorous excerpt from Emily Brontë's 1847 Wuthering Heights:

Joseph was an elderly, nay, an old man—very old, perhaps, though hale and sinewy. "The Lord help us!" he soliloquized in an undertone of peevish displeasure, while relieving me of my horse, looking, meantime, in my face so sourly that I charitably conjectured he must have need of divine aid to digest his dinner, and his pious ejaculation had no reference to my unexpected advent.

Because the word is about religion and religiousness, many associate pious with the Bible. It is, however, wholly absent from many translations of the Bible, probably because of its ambiguous meaning. Pious is, though, included in The New Revised Standard Version and the paraphrasing Living Bible, among a number of others:

The blessing of the Lord is the reward of the pious, and quickly God causes his blessing to flourish.
— Sirach 11:22, New Revised Standard Version

You try to look like saintly men, but underneath those pious robes of yours are hearts besmirched with every sort of hypocrisy and sin.
— Matthew 23:28, The Living Bible

Piety, which most often refers to simple religious devotion, doesn't have the same problem, and is more widely used in biblical translations.

Examples of pious in a Sentence

We must ask to what extent, and at however unconscious a level, a conflict arises in the pious political mind when it is sworn to uphold the civil religion of the Constitution. E. L. Doctorow, Free Inquiry, October/November 2008
But our problem is the lack of any shared or coherent attitude toward the rest of the world, without which, as Judt acknowledges, Europe exists in pieces, an outsize Switzerland held together by nothing more solid than pious sentiment. Nicholas Fraser, Harper's, May 2006
The other side of the masonry block was covered with a web of ancient graffiti, she said, left by pious visitors to the tomb. Tom Mueller, Atlantic, October 2003
The news offered so many occasions for pious or ribald commentary that any chance of agreement about what any of it meant was lost in a vast din of clucking and sniggering. Lewis H. Lapham, Harper's, August 1997
Japanese schools have another eccentricity, which is the pious, Sunday-school-like enthusiasm of students and teachers alike for education about values. Teachers sometimes sound so saccharine that they would make Mr. Rogers look like a cynic. Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times Magazine, 17 Aug. 1997
They lived a quiet, pious life. I'm tired of hearing politicians making pious pronouncements about their devotion to the people.
Recent Examples on the Web In a tiny rural village in Argentina, Rita Lopez, a pious yet insatiably competitive woman, decides that staging a miracle could be her ticket to sainthood. Jill Goldsmith, Deadline, 28 June 2024 Against intention, this period was the most pious moment in either of our lives, my father’s and mine, as closeness to God was revealed as not a place but a search. Nicolaia Rips, The New Yorker, 21 June 2024 This message and the pious and social acts of Eid, such ascelebrating with friends and family and spreading acts of charity exemplify mindfulness and can be helpful when implemented regularly. Monica Haider, CNN, 16 June 2024 This is the novel’s most compelling section — Gordon ekes out a living, runs afoul of his pious father’s homophobia, and, to use the author’s favored metaphor, finally comes into focus for the reader. Rumaan Alam, New York Times, 21 May 2024 See all Example Sentences for pious 

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'pious.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

Etymology

Middle English, from Latin pius

First Known Use

15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

Time Traveler
The first known use of pious was in the 15th century

Dictionary Entries Near pious

Cite this Entry

“Pious.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pious. Accessed 25 Jul. 2024.

Kids Definition

pious

adjective
pi·​ous ˈpī-əs How to pronounce pious (audio)
1
: having or showing love for deity : devout
2
: displaying great loyalty to a person or thing (as a family, custom, or philosophy)
3
: marked by a false show of goodness
a pious fraud
4
: deserving praise : worthy
a pious effort
piously adverb
piousness noun

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