‘Loot,’ ‘plunder,’ ‘pillage,’ and what they invoke

The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer set off a nationwide wave of protests and some violence. From a language point of view, the events sent readers to the dictionary, with “loot” ranking among the  top lookups on Merriam-Webster. Switch to the thesaurus for “loot” synonyms, and you’ll find, among others, “pillage” and “plunder.”

Of these, “pillage” is the oldest, with the noun form tracing to about 1390, the Oxford English Dictionary says. It derives from a French contemporary term for “booty” or the “action of sacking.” The verb did not arrive until the late sixteenth century, to mean “To rob (a person); (now usually) to plunder, loot, or sack (a place), esp. in war,” the OED says.

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“Plunder” came through German or Dutch, with the literal translation of “to rob of household furnishings.” It first showed up in English in the early seventeenth century, the OED says, as a verb meaning “To rob (a place or person) of goods or valuables forcibly, typically in a time of war or civil disorder or in the course of a hostile incursion.” The noun form soon followed, to indicate both the act and the goods themselves.

“Loot,” though, did not arrive until about 1839, the OED says, as a noun to mean “Goods (esp. articles of considerable value) taken from an enemy, a captured city, etc. in time of war; also, in wider sense, something taken by force or with violence.” The verb showed up a couple of years later, to mean “To plunder, sack (a city, building).”

All three carry the connotations of goods taken in times of conflict, be it war, civil unrest, or piracy. “Loot” is the only one with some positive connotations. In 1943 it took on the informal meaning of “money,” from Scottish slang for what workers got on payday. (In seventeenth-century England, the word “loot” meant a ladle that removed the scum from the brine that produced salt.) In many contexts, such as in casinos or state-sponsored lotteries, “loot” connotes a windfall, money received unexpectedly. On Twitter, “loot” seems more likely to be associated with a company’s giveaways or gift bags, once urban disturbance has been discounted. (Occasional handles and tweets with “plunder” appear on Twitter, but “pillage” seems to be absent.) 

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Based on the above, you might think that “loot” is the more popular of the three words across English. If so, you have another think coming.

“Plunder” rules the roost in books, the Google Ngram shows, though its popularity has waned. (It seems to have picked up some speed in the early twenty-first century.)

For more than 200 years, “pillage” was in second place, but was overturned by “loot” about 1920. The slang introduction of “loot” may have given it that bump in the 1940s, but “loot” and “pillage” have maintained their relative positions since.

Ngrams such as this provide only the use of the word, without context, making it impossible to see how they were being wielded. In the context of rioting and civil disturbances, though, “loot” seems more likely to be used.

In a sampling of news reports on the recent violence in cities, for example, “loot” or “looting” were the overwhelmingly preferred forms, with “pillage” trailing far behind. “Plunder” rarely appeared. The Associated Press used “pillage” in one article about Los Angeles; a statement from the Communications Workers of America talked about the “economic pillaging by corporate America of Black communities”; an article in The Atlantic headlined “Trump Is the Looter” says the president “has pillaged much from this country.” The Minneapolis Star Tribune also managed a two-fer, writing about “small businesses, many of them family- and minority-owned, that have gone up on flames or been plundered by looters.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.

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