trib·​u·​tary | \ ˈtri-byə-ˌter-ē How to pronounce tributary (audio) \
plural tributaries

Definition of tributary

 (Entry 1 of 2)

1 : a stream feeding a larger stream or a lake
2 : a ruler or state that pays tribute to a conqueror



Definition of tributary (Entry 2 of 2)

1 : paying tribute to another to acknowledge submission, to obtain protection, or to purchase peace : subject
2 : paid or owed as tribute tributary gifts
3 : channeling material or supplies into something more inclusive : contributory

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Synonyms & Antonyms for tributary

Synonyms: Noun

Antonyms: Noun

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Did You Know?

A tributary was originally a person or state that owed tribute to a more powerful person or state. Ancient China, for instance, had dozens of tributary states, and the emperor would receive elephants from Siam or young girls from Korea as tribute. Just as a smaller power gave some of its wealth to a larger power, a small river contributes its waters to a larger one. A tributary can be a tiny stream, but some are immense rivers. The Missouri River, for example, could be called a tributary to the Mississippi, even though it's about 2,500 miles long and receives hundreds of tributaries itself.

Examples of tributary in a Sentence

Noun one of the river's tributaries This stream is a tributary of the Ohio River.
Recent Examples on the Web: Noun With the exception of large storms over a few days in late May, rainfall in Ohio's vast Maumee River Watershed, a main tributary to western Lake Erie, was relatively scant. Keith Matheny, Detroit Free Press, "Lake Erie algae bloom forecast improved, but states failing in war against nutrient loads," 9 July 2020 Sitting on the Blue Nile, the main tributary of the Nile river, the dam is the largest hydro-electric project in Africa. The Economist, "Dam bluster Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan must learn how to share the Nile river," 4 July 2020 The closure extends from the mouth upriver to Faraday Dam, including Estacada Lake and Eagle Creek, a tributary. Bill Monroe, oregonlive, "Hatchery spring chinook salmon retention on Clackamas River closing Saturday," 2 July 2020 One of the largest perennial streams in Arizona, the Verde River, runs through the Tonto and is a major tributary of the Salt River. Erin Stone, azcentral, "As Bush Fire becomes one of largest in Arizona history, water and wildlife at risk," 22 June 2020 Another small population of at least seven animals live in India’s Beas River, an Indus tributary. National Geographic, "One of world's rarest dolphins rebounding in Pakistan," 18 June 2020 Or, if deep dropoffs and ledges on the lower end of an impoundment fail to turn up bass, consider running far up a major tributary and fishing shallow cover in murky water. Mark Hicks, Field & Stream, "10 Ways to Catch More Largemouth Bass," 15 June 2020 Visitors who make a prior reservation can walk a 1.67-mile trail that follows Elk Slough, a tributary of the Sacramento River. Esther Mobley,, "California wineries slowly begin to reopen tasting rooms, but in altered state," 23 May 2020 The Flåm Railway, Norway Widely considered to be one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world, this 12-mile route takes you from the end of Aurlandsfjord, a tributary of the Sognefjord, up to the high mountains at Myrdal station. Evie Carrick, Travel + Leisure, "13 Virtual Train Rides From Around the World That You Can Experience Right Now," 14 Apr. 2020 Recent Examples on the Web: Adjective Under the new plan, developers would construct the dams, now numbering four, in a side tributary canyon called Big Canyon, about 23 miles west of Tuba City. Debra Utacia Krol, The Arizona Republic, "Navajo Nation issues opposition letter to Little Colorado confluence dam project," 2 Aug. 2020 It was accomplished by water pollution controls and an aggressive campaign to destroy sea lampreys by treating tributary streams with the piscicide TFM to kill larvae. Steve Quinn, Outdoor Life, "The Ultimate Guide to Fishing the Great Lakes this Summer," 18 June 2020 The suspicious Ming were constricting foreign trade; Portugal was not a formal tributary state, and therefore was not recognized by the dynasty’s officials as having the right to trade. Michael Schuman, The Atlantic, "When China Met the West," 6 June 2020 Various sites throughout the watershed, including tributary streams, remain available for adoption. cleveland, "Tinker’s Creek Watershed Partners reaping rewards from devoted water-quality volunteers," 1 June 2020 Chinese leaders aim to put in place a modern-day version of the tributary system that Chinese emperors used to establish authority over vassal states. H. R. Mcmaster, The Atlantic, "The United States Needs a New China Strategy," 17 Apr. 2020 Opponents say raising the dam would harm the tributary McCloud River and its wild trout fishery protected by the California Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Washington Post, "Interior proposes coveted deal to ex-client of agency head," 9 Nov. 2019 As a bonus, both fish ladders and trap and haul can make life unpleasant for communities of fish that are further downstream, or in tributary environments where there’s one main transport system along the main river. Aja Romano, Vox, "These unanswered questions are fueling speculation about the sex offender’s life and death.," 11 Aug. 2019 Though snakes are rare in snow country, one of the most prolific rattlesnake areas in California is the lower reaches of Rattlesnake Creek, a tributary canyon to the Kern River in Sequoia National Park (Tulare County). Tom Stienstra,, "Rattlesnake season is here. Be prepared.," 28 June 2019

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'tributary.' 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 tributary


14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 2


14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

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Time Traveler for tributary

Time Traveler

The first known use of tributary was in the 14th century

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Statistics for tributary

Last Updated

13 Jul 2020

Cite this Entry

“Tributary.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 13 Aug. 2020.

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More Definitions for tributary


How to pronounce tributary (audio)

English Language Learners Definition of tributary

: a stream that flows into a larger stream or river or into a lake


trib·​u·​tary | \ ˈtri-byə-ˌter-ē How to pronounce tributary (audio) \
plural tributaries

Kids Definition of tributary

: a stream flowing into a larger stream or a lake The river has several tributaries.


trib·​u·​tary | \ ˈtrib-yə-ˌter-ē How to pronounce tributary (audio) \
plural tributaries

Medical Definition of tributary

: a vein that empties into a larger vein

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