[ proh-uh-bish-uhn ]
/ ˌproʊ əˈbɪʃ ən /
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See synonyms for: prohibition / prohibitions on Thesaurus.com

Definition of prohibition

the act of prohibiting.
the legal prohibiting of the manufacture and sale of alcoholic drinks for common consumption.
(often initial capital letter) the period (1920–33) when the Eighteenth Amendment was in force and alcoholic beverages could not legally be manufactured, transported, or sold in the U.S.
a law or decree that forbids.
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Origin of prohibition

1275–1325; Middle English <Latin prohibitiōn- (stem of prohibitiō). See prohibit, -ion

OTHER WORDS FROM prohibition

pro·hi·bi·tion·ar·y, adjectivean·ti·pro·hi·bi·tion, adjective, nounnon·pro·hi·bi·tion, nounpre·pro·hi·bi·tion, noun
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


When was Prohibition?

Prohibition refers to a period in American history when the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcoholic beverages was made illegal. The law, which was created by the Eighteenth Amendment (ratified in 1918) to the United States Constitution and subsequently reversed by the Twenty-first Amendment (ratified in 1933), proved largely unpopular.

What was Prohibition?

Anti-alcohol advocacy, formally called the temperance movement, was popular in the United States in the early 19th century. Largely created and run by religious women, the temperance movement was a response to the perceived role that alcoholism and drunkenness played in creating crime, poverty, and trouble among families. The movement grew through the 19th century, gaining footholds in traditionally Protestant areas like New England, until 1918, when the Eighteenth Amendment (which is often called Prohibition and was enforced through the Volstead Act) was ratified. Prohibition effectively lasted from 1920–1933, and is so called because it prohibited (banned) making, selling, or transporting alcohol.

Many Americans disagreed with Prohibition, and many ignored the laws and restrictions. While alcohol consumption did fall as a result of liquor becoming more difficult to obtain, Prohibition also spawned a new area of organized crime in which bootlegging (making, transporting, and selling alcohol illegally) rose in popularity. This business could be carried out locally, but it was largely controlled by the mob, who created a national bootlegging network. Famed gangster Al Capone is said to have made $60 million every year from his bootlegging exploits. Many people also made their own alcohol from scratch, creating homemade beer or moonshine.

Prohibition was eventually repealed in 1933, amidst the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt saw the possibilities in creating an influx of jobs through reviving the liquor industry, and actually campaigned on a platform that involved repealing Prohibition. Roosevelt easily won the election and repealed Prohibition, to much celebration.

Examples of Prohibition

“In an age when individual freedom is all, it comes as something of a shock to reflect that in the world’s most prosperous and dynamic country the prohibition of alcohol lasted for almost 14 years. Today we often think of Prohibition as a deluded experiment, instinctively associating it with images of Al Capone, the mafia, and the Valentine’s Day Massacre. In fact, the campaign to prohibit alcohol had been deeply rooted in Anglo-American society for some two centuries.”
—Dominic Sandbrook, “How Prohibition backfired and gave America an era of gangsters and speakeasies,” The Guardian, August 25, 2012

“When the 21st Amendment was ratified on this day, Dec. 5, in 1933, it ended Prohibition 13 years, 10 months, and 19 days after it began.”
—Jennifer Latson, “A Toast to the End of Prohibition,” Time, December 5, 2014


This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.

How to use prohibition in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for prohibition (1 of 2)

/ (ˌprəʊɪˈbɪʃən) /

the act of prohibiting or state of being prohibited
an order or decree that prohibits
(sometimes capital) (esp in the US) a policy of legally forbidding the manufacture, transportation, sale, or consumption of alcoholic beverages except for medicinal or scientific purposes
law an order of a superior court (in Britain the High Court) forbidding an inferior court to determine a matter outside its jurisdiction

Derived forms of prohibition

prohibitionary, adjective

British Dictionary definitions for prohibition (2 of 2)

/ (ˌprəʊɪˈbɪʃən) /

the period (1920–33) when the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquors was banned by constitutional amendment in the US

Derived forms of Prohibition

Prohibitionist, noun
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

Cultural definitions for prohibition

[ (proh-uh-bish-uhn) ]

The outlawing of alcoholic beverages nationwide from 1920 to 1933, under an amendment to the Constitution. The amendment, enforced by the Volstead Act, was repealed by another amendment to the Constitution in 1933.

notes for Prohibition

Prohibition is often mentioned in discussions of how much social change can be brought about through law, because alcohol was widely, though illegally, produced and sold during Prohibition; it was served privately in the White House under President Warren Harding, for example.

notes for Prohibition

Many use the example of Prohibition to argue that more harm than good comes from the enactment of laws that are sure to be widely disobeyed.

notes for Prohibition

Some states and localities (called “dry”) had outlawed the production and sale of alcohol before the Prohibition amendment was adopted. The repealing amendment allowed individual states and localities to remain “dry,” and some did for many years.
The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.