vig·​i·​lan·​te ˌvi-jə-ˈlan-tē How to pronounce vigilante (audio)
: a member of a volunteer committee organized to suppress and punish crime summarily (as when the processes of law are viewed as inadequate)
broadly : a self-appointed doer of justice
vigilantism noun

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The Meaning and Origin of Vigilante

Vigilante entered English in the 19th century, borrowed from the Spanish word of the same spelling which meant “watchman, guard” in that language. The Spanish word can be traced back to the Latin vigilare, meaning “to keep awake.” The earliest use of the word in English was to refer to a member of a vigilance committee, a committee organized to suppress and punish crime summarily, as when the processes of law appear inadequate. The word may often be found in an attributive role, as in the phrases “vigilante justice,” or “vigilante group.” In this slightly broadened sense it carries the suggestion of the enforcement of laws without regard to due process or the general rule of law.

Examples of vigilante in a Sentence

the danger of these self-appointed vigilantes is that they sometimes go after innocent people
Recent Examples on the Web Browne-Marshall said prosecutors in such high-profile cases as Ahmaud Arbery, a Black jogger who was chased down and killed by three white vigilantes in 2020 near Brunswick, Georgia, initially balked at pursuing charges until widespread protests forced them to take action. Bill Hutchinson, ABC News, 13 May 2024 Disguises law dates to 1800s but no record of use in Hamilton County The protesters were initially charged under an 1800s era law used to target the Ku Klux Klan and other similar violent, vigilante groups. Cameron Knight, The Enquirer, 13 May 2024 Batman has been around for more than 80 years now, and in that time, Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s dark vigilante has been the subject of countless comic books, cartoons, and movies. Christian Holub,, 9 May 2024 Meanwhile, inhabitants of the nearby hamlet of Soufriere have been open about their intent to do vigilante justice if Lehrer is released. Nina Burleigh, The Hollywood Reporter, 7 May 2024 The narrative unfolds in the devoutly Catholic town of Pula and examines themes of faith, fanaticism, and vigilante justice. Naman Ramachandran, Variety, 3 May 2024 In 2020, social upheaval from the Covid-19 pandemic and racial justice protests created the ideal conditions for militias to act out their survivalist, vigilante, and anti-government fantasies. Tess Owen, WIRED, 2 May 2024 Critics said Rittenhouse had no right to fire his weapon and was illegally acting as a vigilante militia. USA TODAY, 24 Apr. 2024 His silence provided tacit backing as vigilante groups continued to target non-Hindu minority groups and as members of his party routinely used hateful and racist language, even in Parliament, against the largest of those groups, India’s 200 million Muslims. Mujib Mashal, New York Times, 23 Apr. 2024

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

Word History


Spanish, watchman, guard, from vigilante vigilant, from Latin vigilant-, vigilans

First Known Use

1856, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of vigilante was in 1856

Dictionary Entries Near vigilante

Cite this Entry

“Vigilante.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 26 May. 2024.

Kids Definition


vig·​i·​lan·​te ˌvij-ə-ˈlant-ē How to pronounce vigilante (audio)
: a member of a group of volunteers who decide on their own to stop crime and to punish criminals

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