[ thuhg ]
/ θʌg /
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See synonyms for: thug / thugs on Thesaurus.com

a violent, lawless, or vicious person, especially one who commits a crime such as assault, robbery, or murder: It wasn't uncommon for hired thugs to intimidate shop owners until they paid up.
(sometimes initial capital letter) one of a former group of professional robbers and murderers in India who strangled their victims.
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Origin of thug

First recorded in 1800–10; from Hindi, Marathi ṭhag “swindler, cheat, rogue,” perhaps from Sanskrit sthaga- “a cheat,” from sthagati “he conceals”

usage note for thug

The word thug has had racial and cultural overtones since its adoption into the English language. It entered English during the British colonial period to describe a particular gang of criminals in India, but from the beginning, the otherness of the Indian robbers was intrinsic to the narrative about British colonial victims.
In American English, the word is disproportionately applied to nonwhite perpetrators of violence or crime. White teens disturbing the peace at a party with loud music are more likely to be called troublemakers or hooligans. Their Black peers are more likely to be labeled thugs for the same offense. And following this common racialized usage, thug is used by some and interpreted by many as a code word for Black. In extreme cases, thug is chosen as a dog whistle to imply that Black people are generally prone to violence or criminality.
However, there is also a reclaimed sense of thug within the Black community, and particularly in the hip-hop community, one that acknowledges the violence implicit in the label while also celebrating toughness and street smarts.
Because thug has many implied connotations that may change depending on who is using the word and who is being described by it, it’s important to critically consider the context and tone around each particular instance of its use to truly understand what is being communicated.


thug·ger·y [thuhg-uh-ree], /ˈθʌg ə ri/, nounthug·gish, adjective
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What does thug mean?

Thug is a term for a violent, lawless person, especially a man.

The word was originally used in the 1800s as a name for members of a group of men in India said to be professional criminals and murderers. In this use, it is sometimes capitalized.

Since then, thug has come to have a more general meaning similar to its more old-fashioned synonym ruffian. The act of behaving as a thug is known as thuggery. The adjective form of thug is thuggish. In this sense, thug often refers to someone who acts as a bully or is a professional and violent criminal, as in The mafia sent hired thugs to intimidate store owners.

However, in the U.S., the word thug has a history of being used by racist white people who specifically apply it to African American men to portray them as violent criminals. When used in this way, it is often thought to function as a substitute for a racist slur.

For this reason, some African Americans have reclaimed the word as a positive identifier. It is especially used in hip-hop, particularly in the phrase thug life.

Where does thug come from?

The first records of the word thug come from the early 1800s. It comes from the Hindi word thag, meaning “rogue,” “thief,” or “cheat.” This derives from the Sanskrit sthaga, which means “scoundrel” and comes from the verb sthagati, “to conceal.”

During the British colonization and rule of India in the 1800s, Thug was used to refer to members of the so-called Thuggee Cult. These Thugs were said to be professional criminals and assassins who robbed travelers and murdered them by strangulation. The British arrested and imprisoned thousands of Indians that they identified as Thugs, executed many of them, and claimed to have eliminated the entire organization. However, some historians believe that the British exaggerated the presence and methods of the Thugs as a means of suppression.

The word thug itself, however, entered the popular imagination and eventually came to be used in a general way to refer to bullies and violent criminals. Gangsters and armed robbers are often described as thugs. The word almost always implies a tendency for violence.

Sometimes, though, it’s used to conceal a racist implication: labeling a Black man as a thug is often a way to imply that all Black men are thugs—that they’re all prone to violence and crime. For this reason, use of the word, such as in journalism and by politicians, is often criticized as promoting these racist stereotypes.

The reclaimed use of the word thug by Black people is intended to highlight and counter these stereotypes. This use of the term was popularized in hip-hop by 1990s rapper Tupac Shakur, who characterized thug life as a struggle against racism and injustice.

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What are some other forms related to thug?

  • thuggish (adjective)
  • thuggery (noun)

What are some synonyms for thug?

What are some words that share a root or word element with thug

What are some words that often get used in discussing thug?

How is thug used in real life?

The word thug is usually (but not always) applied to men. Its racist use makes its other uses controversial.



How to use thug in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for thug

/ (θʌɡ) /

a tough and violent man, esp a criminal
(sometimes capital) (formerly) a member of an organization of robbers and assassins in India who typically strangled their victims

Derived forms of thug

thuggery, nounthuggish, adjective

Word Origin for thug

C19: from Hindi thag thief, from Sanskrit sthaga scoundrel, from sthagati to conceal
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