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tor·​pe·​do tȯr-ˈpē-(ˌ)dō How to pronounce torpedo (audio)
plural torpedoes
: a weapon for destroying ships by rupturing their hulls below the waterline: such as
: a submarine mine
: a thin cylindrical self-propelled underwater projectile
: a small firework that explodes when thrown against a hard object
: a professional gunman or assassin


2 of 2


torpedoed; torpedoing tȯr-ˈpē-də-wiŋ How to pronounce torpedo (audio)

transitive verb

: to hit or sink (a ship) with a naval torpedo : strike or destroy by torpedo
: to destroy or nullify altogether : wreck
torpedo a plan

Did you know?

Torpedo comes to English by way of Latin torpēdō, which has two quite different meanings. It refers to a state of inertness, sluggishness, or lethargy, and it refers to a creature also known as the electric ray. When English speakers borrowed the Latin word, it was to apply it with this second meaning; in early 16th century English torpedo referred to those round-bodied short-tailed rays that are naturally equipped with a pair of electric organs. (The ancient Greeks reportedly used electric rays to numb the pain of surgery and childbirth.) The most familiar use of torpedo today, referring specifically to the cylindrical underwater naval weapon, dates to the 1866 development of the self-propelled torpedo by British engineer Robert Whitehead—but that use built on a century-old employment of torpedo in referring to another invention. In 1776 a small submersible vessel developed by American inventor David Bushnell was used (unsuccessfully) in an assault on a British ship in New York harbor. Bushnell was reported to have named the vessel “American Turtle or Torpedo.” He didn’t stick with the appellation, but it likely informed Robert Fulton’s use of torpedo for his own underwater explosive devices in the early 19th century, and it laid the groundwork for the word’s application to Whitehead’s torpedo.

Examples of torpedo in a Sentence

Noun The battleship was sunk by a torpedo fired by a submarine. that deli's torpedoes are big enough to serve two people Verb The submarine torpedoed the battleship. Her injury torpedoed her goal of competing in the Olympics.
Recent Examples on the Web
On the afternoon of December 6, 1917, the USS Jacob Jones was sailing off the coast of Britain when German troops launched a torpedo from a submarine. Sarah Kuta, Smithsonian Magazine, 23 Feb. 2024 Housed in a former torpedo factory, the property will reopen on April 15, 2024, after a $50-million renovation under the management of Davidson Resorts. Dobrina Zhekova, Travel + Leisure, 3 Feb. 2024 But such a deal would entail concessions to the Palestinians, something that his extremist coalition partners would no doubt torpedo. Ruth Margalit, New York Times, 27 Sep. 2023 This required a broad set of skills, from understanding how to update the command system software to maintaining the hydraulic torpedo loaders. IEEE Spectrum, 26 July 2023 The submarine carried 10 torpedoes in the forward section and had two periscopes. Cara Tabachnick, CBS News, 9 Nov. 2023 The Biden Administration launched the opening salvo, but Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville is looking like an unguided torpedo. The Editorial Board, WSJ, 2 Nov. 2023 The torpedo resembles a traditional spiral that can be used to rocket a punt from deep in a team’s own territory. Jeré Longman, New York Times, 7 Sep. 2023 Travel Back in Time The Fire That Almost Sunk an Aircraft Carrier The True Story of the Kursk Submarine Disaster Divers Find the Experimental Submarine ‘Defender’ Stickleback was now in danger of sinking, and her 82 crew was evacuated to a nearby torpedo retrieval ship. Kyle Mizokami, Popular Mechanics, 4 July 2023
The economic fallout from the coronavirus outbreak, which hobbled the lodging and travel industries worldwide and in the Bay Area, helped to torpedo the hotel development proposal. George Avalos, The Mercury News, 8 Apr. 2024 Underlying all of this, Mr. Salm says, is how clear it’s become that Mr. Putin’s efforts to torpedo the alliance have backfired. Anna Mulrine Grobe, The Christian Science Monitor, 2 Apr. 2024 David Walker, 19, was assigned to the battleship USS California when it was torpedoed during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Kerry Breen, CBS News, 29 Mar. 2024 Adaptations can be especially deadly when moviemakers are too precious with the source material; they’re torpedoed by fealty. Manohla Dargis, New York Times, 29 Feb. 2024 Former President Donald Trump is trying to torpedo a bipartisan border security package, putting new pressure on Republicans to reject a deal that Senate negotiators have been crafting for months. Mike Johnson, USA TODAY, 22 Jan. 2024 State education officials have acknowledged that the legal threats from lawmakers and delays could torpedo the agreement. Ian Max Stevenson, Idaho Statesman, 28 Mar. 2024 The move by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak would torpedo Mr. Zucker’s bid in its current form, which relies heavily on financing from investment partners in the United Arab Emirates. Mark Landler, New York Times, 13 Mar. 2024 There was the disappointment of the early season ankle injury that torpedoed an exceptional start and cost him 18 games. Barry Jackson, Miami Herald, 29 Feb. 2024

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

Word History



borrowed from Latin torpēdō "state of inertness, sluggishness, lethargy, the electric ray Torpedo marmorata or related species," from torpēre "to be numb, lack sensation, be struck motionless, be sluggish or lethargic" + -din-, -dō, suffix of state — more at torpid

Note: The n-stem suffix -din-, -dō is presumed to have been originally applied to stative verbs such as torpēre. It is directly comparable to the suffix in Greek algedon-, algedṓn "pain, suffering," derived from algéō, algeîn "to feel pain." In Latin the -ē- of the verb was taken as part of the suffix, which was then applied directly to adjectives, the resulting nouns often denoting undesirable or unpleasant states (as gravēdō "head cold, oppressive feeling," dulcēdō "sweetness, pleasantness, itch, irritation," putrēdō "rottenness"; compare as later formations albedo, flavedo). — The application of the word torpedo "electric ray" to submarine warfare dates to the early years of the American Revolution. The Pennsylvania-born inventor David Bushnell (1740-1824 or 26) developed a small submersible vessel in 1776, which was used in an unsuccessful assault on a British ship in New York harbor on September 7th of that year. The physician James Thacher recorded this event in his journal for October: "By some gentlemen from head-quarters, near New York, we are amused with an account of a singular machine, invented by a Mr. D. Bushnell of Connecticut, for the purpose of destroying the British shipping by explosion …Mr. Bushnell gave to his machine the name of American Turtle or Torpedo" (Military Journal of the American Revolution, [Hartford, CT, 1862], pp. 62-63). Bushnell appears to have given the name "torpedo" to his submarine, rather than solely to the time-detonated powder magazine that was meant to be screwed into the hull of a ship below the waterline. In a description of the boat and powder magazine sent in a letter to Thomas Jefferson in October, 1787, Bushnell used neither "turtle" nor "torpedo." (The letter was published as "General Principles and Construction of a Sub-marine Vessel" in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 4 [1799], pp. 303-12.) In 1777 Bushnell experimented with floating mines—powder kegs set off by a spring-released flintlock—but these too failed to damage a British vessel. Probably not unconnected to Bushnell's "torpedo," the same word was used by Robert fulton in the early nineteenth century to refer to underwater explosive devices of his own design, in letters and a pamphlet Torpedo War, and Submarine Explosions (New York, 1810); Fulton believed that submarine mines, his "torpedoes," would effectually end aggressive naval warfare and ensure freedom of the seas. With the development of the self-propelled torpedo by the British engineer Robert Whitehead in 1866, the word torpedo began to be applied solely to such devices, with submarine mine or a similar term reserved for stationary explosive devices.


derivative of torpedo entry 1

First Known Use


circa 1520, in the meaning defined at sense 3


circa 1879, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of torpedo was circa 1520


Dictionary Entries Near torpedo

Cite this Entry

“Torpedo.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 22 Apr. 2024.

Kids Definition


1 of 2 noun
tor·​pe·​do tȯr-ˈpēd-ō How to pronounce torpedo (audio)
plural torpedoes
: a thin cylindrical self-propelled submarine weapon
: a small firework that explodes when thrown against a hard object


2 of 2 verb
torpedoed; doing
: to hit or sink with or as if with a torpedo


from Latin torpedo, literally "numbness," from torpēre "to be numb" — related to torpid

Word Origin
The Latin verb torpēre, meaning "to be numb," gave rise to the noun torpedo, "numbness." This noun was borrowed into English in the 16th century to refer to a long round fish that gave a numbing electric shock to anyone who touched it. This fish was also called an electric ray, a crampfish, or a numbfish. In the early 19th century, the American inventor Robert Fulton developed a floating device that exploded when it touched a ship. He called this device a torpedo because it reminded him of the electric ray. Since then the torpedo has been modernized and is fired at its target. Although it still looks somewhat like the fish, its effects can certainly be more than numbing.

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