Both pillage and plunder refer to the taking of goods by force. What is the distinction in how the two words are used?

Specifically, (due to a recent argument) do pirates only plunder, or can they pillage as well?


6 Answers 6


A couple of colleagues and I have been going through some Google NGrams. At first it seems quite conclusive that plundering is a far more sea worthy activity than pillaging, and plundering is certainly the more pirately thing to do:

"plundered the ship" vs. "pillaged the ship" NGram

"pirates pillaging" vs. "pirates plundering" NGram "pirates pillage" vs "pirates plunder" NGram

In an actual example: British critic: and quarterly theological review, Volume 16 (pp. 516 to 518), they appear to use pillage and plunder interchangeably as nouns, but only plunder as a verb. This seems fitting for water-borne criminality.

In this discourse of plunder (page 2) pillage is said to be something that makes up plundering.

However, the further I read into the samples provided by the Google book search, it seems that pillage and plunder can be used interchangeably, it's just that plunder is a far more popular word.

In fact, although it is a much rarer occurrence than "pirates plundered", "pirates pillaged" does appear in literature. Some examples:

Outside of buccaneering, there is a lot of synonymous usage of plunder and pillage - here are some examples:

In a text about the history of English government, on page 94 they write:

Commercial plunder, however, was to be more destructive than military pillage

On page 554 of The new encyclopædia; or, Universal dictionary of arts and sciences they define Pillage by using plunder. An later on page 687 they define plunder using pillage.

There seems to be no difference in the meaning of the two words in The works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, Volume 7 on pages 408 and 410

Again I find the same in "The Forum, Volume 17" (plunder, pillage)

So, in conclusion, it seems that plundering and pillaging are the same thing.

  • Yer answer be a great, grand volume of research and I be laudin' ye fer it, me hearty. I am interested in the "commercial plunder/military pillage" statement. Is that an actual distinction perhaps? Also, so you are saying that I am more likely to hear about pirates plundering just because I am more likely to hear about plundering in general?
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Sep 19, 2011 at 20:26
  • @Kit There could be a military / non-military to pillage / plunder relationship, but I've only seen that one occurrence so far. I'll put something in the answer about pirates pillaging at sea. Sep 19, 2011 at 21:15

I've allus thought pillage wor looting for the sake of it (maybe taking furniture for firewood), while plunder wor taking by force, to sell or give to the British Museum. But stap me if me trusty Chambers doesn't define pillage as "the act of plundering: plunder" and 'plunder' as (among other things) "vi to pillage: n pillage"!

Truth to tell, there are so few pillagers/plunderers these days that any difference there may have been is lost. [Insert mandatory financial services joke here, ha-har!]

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    Ye be gettin' plus one fore the lingo. Mind ye, no promises it'll be stayin when the rum wears off in the morn.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 19, 2011 at 13:49

The two words have different etymologies, but the same meaning. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the history of pillage is:

Etymology: < Middle French pillage (French pillage ) booty (14th cent.), action of sacking (c1355) < piller (pilyie v.) + -age -age suffix. Compare post-classical Latin pilagium robbery, plundering (1361, 1363 in British sources).

It is first written in this form in the 1300s:

The action or an act of plundering, sacking, or looting a place, esp. in war; depredation, robbery. In early use also: †extortion; unjust taxation or exaction (obs.). Also fig.

The entry for plunder writes that the phrase is from Dutch or German:

Either < German plündern (Middle High German plundern ) or its equivalents Dutch plunderen (Middle Dutch plunderen , plonderen ), German regional (Low German) plündern (Middle Low German plunderen , plünderen ), all in sense ‘to pillage, sack’, lit. ‘to rob of household furnishings’ (compare also Swedish plundra (1540), Danish plyndre (1567 or earlier as plundre ), both probably < Middle Low German). Middle High German plundern is < plunder , blunder bed-clothes, clothing, household furnishings (German Plunder lumber, trash) < Middle Low German plunder sundries, goods (chiefly in compounds; > plunderen , plünderen ) < plunde , plünde household furnishings, (in plural) clothes, rags (German regional (Low German) Plünde , Plünne ), of unknown origin + -er , collective suffix; cognate with Middle Low German plunde , plünde is Middle Dutch plunde , plunne household furnishings (Dutch regional (Friesland) plunje clothes, baggage). With Middle Low German plunder compare Middle Dutch plunder , plonder (Dutch †plunder , †plonder ) household furnishings ( > plunderen , plonderen ). Swedish †plunder baggage, also rags, trash (1557), Danish †plunder possessions, goods, are probably < Middle Low German.

So plunder was a specific kind of pillaging--it specifically referred to the robbing of household furnishings, while pillage referred to any type of sacking or looting. In use now, however, the difference is the presence of soldiers or not:

'Plunder' refers to the roving of soldiers through recently conquered territory in search of money and goods.

'Pillage' describes the act of stripping a conquered city or people of valuables.

As pirates are not soldiers, they would now pillage, but as they are soldier-like they could also plunder.

  • Alas, me dear lassie, yon Dictionary.com entry says that pirates be right scurvy plunderers, yet breathes not a word of pirates a-pillagin'. This is bare contradiction to yer fine-quoted conclusion.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Sep 19, 2011 at 1:41
  • Aye, but if you search aft into t' OED for "pilyie" it mentions pirates specifically
    – user10893
    Sep 19, 2011 at 1:43

Pillage and plunder used as verbs have the same general meaning. As a noun, pillage means the same as the verb, in other words, it is synonymous with 'the act of pillaging', except when used as a category in an accounting table. Plunder as a noun generally means the thing plundered.

A book of accounts may differentiate between pillage as "perishables, linens and low-value household goods to be traded, used or consumed as-is", and plunder defined as "valuable hard goods suitable for long-term storage or barter, hard currency or that which may be melted down". For example, a cloak or a cartload of pumpkins or so many board-feet of lumber may be pillage; a gem, a silver candelabra or gold piece are examples of plunder. Cannon/musket balls and gunpowder are pillage; cannons, pistols, rapiers and cutlasses are plunder.

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    Excellent distinction, @Mojo Bone. Do you have any references you might share with the community?
    – rajah9
    Nov 29, 2012 at 14:44

Lots of good research. I had always divided the two mentally on the basis of distribution. Recall that "plunder" can be a noun - it can be hoarded - but the usage of "pillage" as a noun seems vanishingly rare. Because "plunder" can be saved, it is given to the institution of marauders; "pillage" is what is given to/saved by the individual marauder, often on the basis of the item being a perishable good.


Reading my Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, starting with entry "ravage", which compares "plunder", "sack" and "pillage", I discern as follows:

  • plunder = forcible taking, specifically overt forcible taking, as in robbing (vs. covert forcible taking, as in stealing)
  • pillage = plunder + violent destruction
  • sack = total plunder + violent destruction

Whereas a plundered ship may still floating, a pillaged ship has been sunk. And whereas a village may be plundered again and again and still exist, a pillaged village is no more. Sacking suggests that everything of value was taken (plundered) before the village was destroyed. If the village was pillaged but not sacked, one can revisit the site of the pillaged village and plunder some more!

Finally, while usage will depart for dramatic effect, plundering, pillaging and sacking are regarded as acts of war, or warlike acts such as piracy. We have other words for their non-warlike equivalents — robbing, ransacking.

So what about ravage? Ravage is violent destruction occurring over an extended period of time, either continuously or episodically.


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