plural thugs
see usage paragraph below : a violent or brutish criminal or bully
a brutal thug
a gang of thugs
… in American History X, Norton … plays a vicious young Venice Beach thug, a racist skinhead with … a thick black swastika tattooed over one bulging pec, and a gleam of murder in his eye.Owen Gleiberman
An authoritarian government willing to use the most brutal means to hold on to power; a dictator whose thugs have murdered, tortured, imprisoned or intimidated tens of thousands of civilians …Michiko Kakutani
: a member of a group of murderous robbers in India's past whose activities were suppressed in the early 19th century
thuggery noun
thuggish adjective
Usage of Thug

Although thug was originally (and often still is) a term with strong negative connotations, since at least the early 1990s it has been embraced and reconceived by rap artists.

[Tupac Shakur's] vision redefined the word "thug" into a man who triumphs over systemic and societal obstacles. Mosi Reeves

It now functions in African-American English with far more nuance than those unfamiliar with that reconception will recognize.

"A thug in black people's speech is somebody who is a ruffian but in being a ruffian is displaying a healthy sort of countercultural initiative, displaying a kind of resilience in the face of racism etc. Of course nobody puts it that way, but that's the feeling. And so when black people say it, they don't mean what white people mean …" John McWhorter

The word's original and ongoing use to refer to criminals is still very much present in the culture at large, however, and use of thug by a white person to refer to a Black person is generally understood to lack the nuance the word carries when used by a Black person, and to instead be an offensive insinuation that a Black person can be assumed to be engaged in criminal behavior.

Examples of thug in a Sentence

He was beaten and robbed by street thugs. the Mob boss regularly sent his thugs after people who were slow to pay their debts
Recent Examples on the Web Because there’s the argument within that cult of thug life, like, who’s a Lo Head and who’s not? Okla Jones, Essence, 14 Aug. 2023 My dad was a thug, so a lot of my tongue comes from my father, and then my mother learned English through Black folk. Kyle Denis, Billboard, 31 Oct. 2023 Walter Reuther called a strike against Kohler that ended up lasting six years, and Kohler hired nonunion workers who were beaten by union thugs. The Editors, National Review, 18 Sep. 2023 The film’s pressure-cooker atmosphere builds to a crescendo as Leila gets closer to the final, surviving several beatings on the mat while government thugs, as well as the rest of her team, tighten their grip around her. Jordan Mintzer, The Hollywood Reporter, 22 Oct. 2023 It has been much abused, by bad people — thugs, authoritarians, illiberals. Jay Nordlinger, National Review, 11 Oct. 2023 In the show, fabulously dressed trans Berliners sing and dance in defiance of Nazi thugs. Laurie Marhoefer, Smithsonian Magazine, 21 Sep. 2023 In the film, the late actor, who died of an accidental overdose in July, plays an enterprising thug who robs a lottery winner in a bodega at gunpoint on Christmas Eve with the hopes of getting his hands on $156 million. Kory Grow, Rolling Stone, 6 Oct. 2023 The January 6th un-Select Committee of thugs and horrible people, the un-Select Committee destroyed all the evidence. NBC News, 17 Sep. 2023 See More

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

Word History


Hindi & Urdu ṭhag, literally, thief

First Known Use

1839, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of thug was in 1839

Dictionary Entries Near thug

Cite this Entry

“Thug.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 28 Nov. 2023.

Kids Definition



from Hindi and Urdu ṭhag, literally "thief"

Word Origin
Thug was the name given by the British in India in the 19th century to a member of a band of thieves and murderers. A thug would pretend to be friendly with a traveler and offer to share a journey. Then as soon as it was safe to do so, the thug would strangle and rob his companion. The word thug comes from ṭhag, a word in the Indian language Hindi meaning one of these robbers. Since thugs made travel dangerous, the British government rounded up most of them, and in a few years they were no longer a threat. The word thug, however, has lasted till today and even taken on the broader meaning of "ruffian."

More from Merriam-Webster on thug

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