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  1. any bloodsucking or carnivorous aquatic or terrestrial worm of the class Hirudinea, certain freshwater species of which were formerly much used in medicine for bloodletting.
  2. a person who clings to another for personal gain, especially without giving anything in return, and usually with the implication or effect of exhausting the other's resources; parasite.
  3. Archaic. an instrument used for drawing blood.
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verb (used with object)
  1. to apply leeches to, so as to bleed.
  2. to cling to and feed upon or drain, as a leech: His relatives leeched him until his entire fortune was exhausted.
  3. Archaic. to cure; heal.
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verb (used without object)
  1. to hang on to a person in the manner of a leech: She leeched on to him for dear life.
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Origin of leech1

before 900; Middle English leche, Old English lǣce; replacing (by confusion with leech2) Middle English liche, Old English lȳce; cognate with Middle Dutch lieke; akin to Old English lūcan to pull out, Middle High German liechen to pull
Related formsleech·like, adjective


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noun Archaic.
  1. a physician.
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Origin of leech2

before 1150; Middle English leche, Old English lǣce; cognate with Old Saxon lāki, Old High German lāhhi, Gothic lēkeis; akin to Old Norse lǣknir


or leach

noun Nautical.
  1. either of the lateral edges of a square sail.
  2. the after edge of a fore-and-aft sail.
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Origin of leech3

1480–90; earlier lek, leche, lyche; akin to Dutch lijk leech, Old Norse līk nautical term of uncertain meaning


  1. Margaret,1893–1974, U.S. historian, novelist, and biographer.
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Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018

Related Words

sycophant, sponge, barnacle, bloodsucker, bum, freeloader, scrounger

Examples from the Web for leech

Contemporary Examples

Historical Examples

  • Perhaps he knows better how deep his hurts are than does this leech.

    Fair Margaret

    H. Rider Haggard

  • He clung like a leech, dragging her closer in spite of all she 224 could do.

    Louisiana Lou

    William West Winter

  • She knew both from Stephen and from the leech that this was far from being his condition.

    The Tavern Knight

    Rafael Sabatini

  • Everything was food for the leech, but there was always the possibility of choking.

    The Leech

    Phillips Barbee

  • Everyone within two hundred miles of the leech was evacuated.

    The Leech

    Phillips Barbee

British Dictionary definitions for leech


  1. any annelid worm of the class Hirudinea, which have a sucker at each end of the body and feed on the blood or tissues of other animalsSee also horseleech, medicinal leech
  2. a person who clings to or preys on another person
    1. an archaic word for physician
    2. (in combination)leechcraft
  3. cling like a leech to cling or adhere persistently to something
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  1. (tr) to use leeches to suck the blood of (a person), as a method of medical treatment
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Derived Formsleechlike, adjective

Word Origin

Old English lǣce, lœce; related to Middle Dutch lieke



  1. nautical the after edge of a fore-and-aft sail or either of the vertical edges of a squaresail
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Word Origin

C15: of Germanic origin; compare Dutch lijk
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for leech


"bloodsucking aquatic worm," from Old English læce (Kentish lyce), of unknown origin (with a cognate in Middle Dutch lake). Commonly regarded as a transferred use of leech (n.2), but the Old English forms suggest a distinct word, which has been assimilated to leech (n.2) by folk etymology [see OED]. Figuratively applied to human parasites since 1784.

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obsolete for "physician," from Old English læce, probably from Old Danish læke, from Proto-Germanic *lekjaz "enchanter, one who speaks magic words; healer, physician" (cf. Old Frisian letza, Old Saxon laki, Old Norse læknir, Old High German lahhi, Gothic lekeis "physician"), literally "one who counsels," perhaps connected with a root found in Celtic (cf. Irish liaig "charmer, exorcist, physician") and Slavic (cf. Serbo-Croatian lijekar, Polish lekarz), from PIE *lep-agi "conjurer," from root *leg- "to collect," with derivatives meaning "to speak" (see lecture (n.)).

For sense development, cf. Old Church Slavonic baliji "doctor," originally "conjurer," related to Serbo-Croatian bajati "enchant, conjure;" Old Church Slavonic vrači, Russian vrač "doctor," related to Serbo-Croatian vrač "sorcerer, fortune-teller." The form merged with leech (n.1) in Middle English, apparently by folk etymology. In 17c., leech usually was applied only to veterinary practitioners. The fourth finger of the hand, in Old English, was læcfinger, translating Latin digitus medicus, Greek daktylus iatrikos, supposedly because a vein from that finger stretches straight to the heart.

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Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper

leech in Medicine


  1. Any of various chiefly aquatic bloodsucking or carnivorous annelid worms of the class Hirudinea, one species of which (Hirudo medicinalis) was formerly used by physicians to bleed patients.
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  1. To bleed with leeches.
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The American Heritage® Stedman's Medical Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.