1 of 3


plural slaves
: someone captured, sold, or born into chattel slavery
Slaves … could be bought, sold, moved about, inherited, given away, insured, and used as collateral for all kinds of business transactions.Nell Irvin Painter
It is evident now, if it never was before, that the development and prosperity of the European colonies in the New World depended upon the labor of these millions of African slaves and their enslaved descendants.Gordon S. Wood
Our poor and forlorn brother whom thou has labelled "slave" is also a man. … God made him such, and his brother cannot unmake him.Henry Highland Garnet

Note: Though still frequently encountered in English, use of the term slave is diminishing relative to such descriptors as "enslaved people" or "the enslaved" when referring to African Americans who were subjected to chattel slavery. In addition to individuals and communities, many institutions—including but not limited to museums, national parks, universities, and media outlets—have updated their language to emphasize the humanity of individuals who were forced to labor for the profit of others under threat of violence, separation from family and friends, and death.

: someone (such as a factory worker or domestic laborer) who is coerced often under threat of violence to work for little or no pay
… garment workers who were detained by immigration authorities after a raid had found them being kept as slaves in an El Monte sweatshop.Melanie Mason
… the continuing scourge of human slaves being used in the supply chain at both a local and international level.Romy Hawatt
When people buy slaves today they don't ask for a receipt or ownership papers, but they do gain control—and they use violence to maintain this control.Kevin Bales
: someone held captive and forced to perform sexual acts usually under threat of violence and often for the purposes of commercial prostitution : sex slave
… women held as slaves by an Islamic State fighter are appealing to the UN to intervene in their case for compensation in a move lawyers hope will help fix a "lawless" global system that is failing torture survivors. … "We've got women who experienced sexual violence and violence generally …," said [Yasmin] Waljee [attorney].Kaamil Ahmed
I consider sex trafficking to be a grotesque, yet highly profitable, component of contemporary slavery. … I met hundreds of slaves during eight years of research in more than a dozen countries, and I met with the traffickers, slave owners, and other criminals who exploited them.Siddharth Kara
often disapproving : someone or something that is completely subservient to a dominating person or influence
a slave to fashion/technology
Markets are slaves of liquidity.Deepak Shenoy
… Americans are slaves to the clock, constantly watching our watches until the two hands line up in a specific way that tells us it's time to do something different.David Brown


2 of 3


slaved; slaving; slaves

intransitive verb

: to work very hard for long hours or under difficult conditions : drudge
: to traffic in people to be sold into slavery

transitive verb

: to make directly responsive to another mechanism
archaic : enslave


3 of 3


: of, relating to, involving, or used for slavery or enslaved people
slave traders
a slave auction
slave labor
a slave economy
The relation between freedom and literacy became the compelling theme of the slave narratives, the great body of printed books that ex-slaves generated to assert their common humanity with white Americans and to indict the system that had oppressed them.Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
: held involuntarily and forced under threat of violence to work without pay for the profit of another : enslaved
born of slave parents
slave workers
The law very specifically withheld from a slave woman the rights of personhood and concomitant protection of the state.Catherine Clinton
: favoring or legally permitting slavery
a slave territory
the slave states
: operated by remote control
the device now tucked away behind the dials isn't properly a clockwork but a … slave unit activated by an electric clock inside the bankThe New Yorker
specifically : responding to manipulation of the master controls of an apparatus
There's also provision for attaching external slave flash units for greater flash range when using print film. Herbert Keppler
… had the ultimate compact-disc system—a master machine and four optional slave machines—that will load and play 250 discs altogether … William D. Marbach

Examples of slave in a Sentence

Noun He's a slave to fashion trends. Do it yourself! I'm not your slave! Verb I slaved all morning to get the work done on time. She's been slaving away at her homework.
Recent Examples on the Web
The 1804 revolution that overthrew colonial France was the most successful slave revolt in history and spawned the first free Black republic in the world. Jason Motlagh, Rolling Stone, 26 Nov. 2023 In it, Schwimmer and Perry are dressed in a vaguely Miami Vice fashion (apparently Ross and Chandler were slaves to fashion in their college years). Matthew Perry’s Comic Timing, Vulture, 16 Nov. 2023 For Lewis, his ancestors were slaves in Grenada, which means that his relatives were very possibly slaves of the Trevelyan family. Simon Perry, Peoplemag, 15 Nov. 2023 Through newspaper records and Smallwood’s and Torrey’s writings, Shane paints a vivid picture of the nation’s capital, which was then dominated by pro-slavery institutions, and of the journeys of slaves who fled north. Condé Nast, The New Yorker, 13 Nov. 2023 Baltimore was part slave and part free, as was all of Maryland. Anna Deavere Smith, The Atlantic, 13 Nov. 2023 Once inside, the spores sprout long tendrils called mycelia that eventually reach into the brain and release chemicals that make the unfortunate host the fungi’s zombie slave. Eric Berger, Ars Technica, 31 Oct. 2023 So an 11-year-old mixed-race slave girl brought the system down. Anna Deavere Smith, The Atlantic, 13 Nov. 2023 Moreover, King William III — the original purchaser of Kensington Palace — was given shares in the Royal African Company by notorious slave trader Edward Colston. Simon Perry, Peoplemag, 30 Oct. 2023
Instead, Christie ended up a supplicant, slaving for Trump’s transition team before finally getting murked by a Jared Kushner bent on settling family business. Jason Linkins, The New Republic, 29 Apr. 2023 But their reassurances tend to fall on deaf ears, as Hannah stays up late each night slaving over dresses her mean-spirited boss will likely dismiss with a sneer. Dennis Harvey, Variety, 11 Mar. 2023 Monuments to slave owners who took up arms against the United States in the Civil War—such as Robert E. Lee—are now coming down. Susan Goldberg, National Geographic, 9 Dec. 2021 Pennsylvania, a free state, was too close to slave country to be considered safe. Roger Lowenstein, WSJ, 26 Oct. 2022 Women and children, soon to be sold off to slave traders, huddle in fear. David Fear, Rolling Stone, 16 Sep. 2022 The first wave of refugees was from the Darfur region of Sudan, followed by Eritreans escaping brutal military dictatorship and forced conscription that has been compared to slave labor. Sara Miller Llana, The Christian Science Monitor, 21 Jan. 2022 In other words, the founding fathers were well aware of the economic advantage to slave owners of limiting the Atlantic slave trade. New York Times, 23 Dec. 2021 Change your scenery and let someone else slave over the stove. Heidi Mitchell, WSJ, 19 Oct. 2021
At a House hearing last month, Shelby Young of the Arizona Coalition for Change decried the proposal as a direct reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement and its protests against statutes dedicated to slave owners and pro-slave figures. Bob Christie, ajc, 26 Mar. 2021 The measure helped spur a larger movement for ex-slave pensions and was later suppressed by federal agencies. Los Angeles Times, 14 Apr. 2021 See More

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

Word History



Middle English sclave, from Anglo-French or Medieval Latin; Anglo-French esclave, from Medieval Latin sclavus, from Sclavus Slav; from the frequent enslavement of Slavs in central Europe during the early Middle Ages

First Known Use


14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1


1559, in the meaning defined at transitive sense 2


1548, in the meaning defined at sense 1b

Time Traveler
The first known use of slave was in the 14th century

Dictionary Entries Near slave

Cite this Entry

“Slave.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 8 Dec. 2023.

Kids Definition


1 of 2 noun
: a person who is owned by another person and can be sold at the owner's will
: a person who has lost self-control and is controlled by something or someone else
a slave to bad habits
: a person who performs difficult or boring work : drudge
slave adjective


2 of 2 verb
slaved; slaving
: to work like a slave : drudge


Middle English sclave "slave," from early French esclave (same meaning), derived from Latin Sclavus "Slav"

Word Origin
In the Middle Ages, Germanic people fought and raided other peoples, especially the Slavic peoples to the east. They took a great many captives there and sold them as slaves throughout Europe. The Slavic people were so common as slaves that writers of the time used the Latin word for "Slav," Sclavus, to mean "a personal slave." The Latin word became sclave in Middle English and then slave in Modern English. Of course slavery and slaves had existed long before the Middle Ages. The ancient Romans used the Latin word servus for "slave." This Latin word is the ancestor of our word servant. In French, servus became serf and was used for a slave who belonged to a piece of land rather than to an individual. Serf has continued to mean this in both French and English, although serfs themselves no longer exist.

Geographical Definition


geographical name

river 258 miles (415 kilometers) long in Canada flowing from the western end of Lake Athabasca north into Great Slave Lake

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