pi·​ous | \ ˈpī-əs How to pronounce pious (audio) \

Definition of pious

1a : 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 deeds— Charles 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
4a : marked by sham or hypocrisy
b : marked by self-conscious virtue : virtuous
5 : deserving commendation : worthy a pious effort

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Other Words from pious

piously adverb
piousness noun

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.
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Recent Examples on the Web Last year Turkey was the only large Muslim country to complain about China locking up perhaps 1m of them for such offences as growing beards or being pious Muslims. The Economist, "Asia minor, and major Why Chinese road signs cause outrage in Istanbul," 1 Feb. 2020 Even though security forces are unpopular, Suleimani personally had an enormous following, because the Iranians saw him as a heroic figure defending the country and someone who stood for patriotism and was pious. Isaac Chotiner, The New Yorker, "The Meaning of Qassem Suleimani’s Death in the Middle East," 3 Jan. 2020 Inspectors checked that nails were short and faces trimmed of mustaches and beards, traditionally worn by pious Muslims. BostonGlobe.com, "Leaked documents reveal how China’s mass detention camps work - The Boston Globe," 25 Nov. 2019 While many of the saints have strong historical records, others’ stories are shrouded in folklore or pious legend. Mary Beth Mccauley, The Christian Science Monitor, "‘Thou shalt not bear false witness’: Ninth Commandment goes to Princeton," 19 Dec. 2019 Akhnaten is moved by pious love, not more base — though surely necessary and practical — mundane concerns. Mary Spencer, National Review, "Philip Glass’s Akhnaten Brings Ancient Egyptian Piety to Life," 14 Dec. 2019 In the premiere episode, portentously directed by Shyamalan with a lot of odd framing and looming close-ups, Sean and Dorothy welcome the dowdy, pious, unworldly Leanne (Nell Tiger Free). Mike Hale, New York Times, "Review: M. Night Shyamalan’s Thanksgiving Feast of Twists," 28 Nov. 2019 In some Catholic regions, abstaining from meat on Fridays is considered a charitable or pious act. Soleil Ho, SFChronicle.com, "Where do you find amazing vegan Vietnamese food in the Bay Area? Look for this Buddhist temple in East Palo Alto," 11 Oct. 2019 The ultra-Orthodox insist their young men serve the nation through prayer and study, thus preserving Jewish learning and heritage, and by maintaining a pious way of life that has kept the Jewish faith alive through centuries of persecution. Aron Heller, San Diego Union-Tribune, "Israel’s election highlights secular-religious divide," 20 Sep. 2019

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'pious.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of pious

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

History and Etymology for pious

Middle English, from Latin pius

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Time Traveler for pious

Time Traveler

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

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Last Updated

16 Feb 2020

Cite this Entry

“Pious.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pious?pronunciation&lang=en_us&dir=p&file=pious001. Accessed 24 Feb. 2020.

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More Definitions for pious


How to pronounce pious (audio)

English Language Learners Definition of pious

: deeply religious : devoted to a particular religion
disapproving : falsely appearing to be good or moral


pi·​ous | \ ˈpī-əs How to pronounce pious (audio) \

Kids Definition of pious

: showing devotion to God

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More from Merriam-Webster on pious

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for pious

Rhyming Dictionary: Words that rhyme with pious

Spanish Central: Translation of pious

Nglish: Translation of pious for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of pious for Arabic Speakers

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