What is a word I can use for someone who acts like a mercenary? Someone who does something only when paid, without loyalty, ruthless and sticking to the contract, even in the case of life and death?

"I would ask my best friend to help us in this project, but I don't trust him. He's not a bad guy, just very mercantile."

Mercantile means more towards merchants, but is there a correct word for mercenary-like?

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  • Does [a] mercenary imply "without loyalty"? I'd have thought that a mercenary, once paid, is loyal to the contract he agreed to. c.f. venal, which carries a strong implication that he's always looking for a better offer. – nigel222 Aug 21 at 9:05
  • Why not just "unreliable"? If a person likes to be paid for a job, they are mercantile, but if a person likes getting money without doing the job, they are unreliable. – alamar Aug 21 at 10:11
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    @nigel222 I think the point is that the mercenary you hire today is probably happy to fight for your enemy tomorrow, if he pays better. – David Richerby Aug 21 at 15:47
  • How about mercenarial? As in, he's very mercenarial. – CrossRoads Aug 21 at 17:56
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    Just use mercenary. Mercenary is both a noun and an adjective. – ab2 Aug 22 at 1:17
up vote 13 down vote accepted

If you don't want to use "mercenary" as an adjective, consider "venal". Mercenaries are bought. They have a reputation for fighting for the highest bidder despite personal convictions (if they have any).

venal
adj
1. easily bribed or corrupted; mercenary: a venal magistrate.
2. characterized by corruption: a venal civilization.
3. open to purchase, esp by bribery: a venal contract.
from Latin vēnālis, from vēnum sale
Collins English Dictionary

I see the word as being akin to "buyable"

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    -1 Mercenaries are corrupt? Purchasable? "Buyable?" – Kris Aug 21 at 8:25
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    @Kris Maybe not corrupt, but definitely purchasable and buyable, no? I thought that's what you did with mercenaries, you'd buy them to fight a war or do some other thing. – Zebrafish Aug 21 at 8:28
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    That makes every working person, every employee a mercenary! – Kris Aug 21 at 8:35
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    @Kris Huh? Are we talking about hired mercenaries as in the ones that fight in conflicts? – Zebrafish Aug 21 at 8:37
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    To have a Mercenary Attitude in a non-military context generally just means that you frame your activities by the (usually money) reward for doing so. It usually confers a certain hard-heartedness or callousness, that you won't just do something because "it's the right thing to do". To be Venal generally confers connotations of greediness beyond that. It's subtle, but a Mercenary attitude usually has a lot less passion than a venal attitude. – Ruadhan2300 Aug 21 at 12:07

The word mercenary is itself an adjective as well as a noun:

mercenary [mur-suh-ner-ee]

adjective

1.working or acting merely for money or other reward; venal.

2.hired to serve in a foreign army, guerrilla organization, etc.

(From dictionary.com)

"I would ask my best friend to help us in this project, but I don't trust him. He's not a bad guy, just very mercenary."

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

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    But it doesn't sound as good when we call someone a "mercenary person" – Muz Aug 21 at 4:24
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    @muz In your example sentence, it would be: "He's not a bad guy, just very mercenary." There's no reason to say "mercenary person." – Jason Bassford Aug 21 at 5:22
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    @JasonBassford +1, for those who may think it's strange, it is just like you can say "...he is just very tall" instead of "...he is just a very tall person". – xDaizu Aug 21 at 12:55
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    I think this answer could be improved by adding a version of OP's sentence using this word. – xDaizu Aug 21 at 12:56
  • @Christopher, thanks for the edit. I'd considered including an example sentence, but the first thing that crossed my mind was a famous line from the classic John Wayne movie, "The Quiet Man" -- "There'll be no locks or bolts between us, Mary Kate... except those in your own mercenary little heart!" – JDM-GBG Aug 22 at 0:47

The relationship is transactional (OXD)

Relating to the conducting of business, especially buying or selling.

‘a purely transactional relationship’

Unscrupulous.

un·scru·pu·lous

ənˈskro͞opyələs/

adjective: unscrupulous

  1. having or showing no moral principles; not honest or fair.

As in:

Last month, several unscrupulous stockbrokers used insider knowledge to make gigantic personal trades.

Source: https://wordsinasentence.com/unscrupulous-in-a-sentence/

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

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    You can be mercenary without being unscrupulous. Contractors who are mercenary and unscrupulous wouldn't be hired again. – Iain Holder Aug 21 at 8:43
  • I thought “unscrupulous” would fit his broader definition: “without loyalty, ruthless”. – jlevis Aug 21 at 17:04
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    This is good, but maybe not as accurate as other answers. It implies that the person has no morals, as opposed to "mercenary" which implies that they are loyal to the highest bidder. – Muz Aug 25 at 9:17

According to Merriam-Webster, something is meretricious if it has the nature of prostitution, is tawdrily and falsely attractive, or is superficially significant. The authors there also note that it was their word-of-the-day on February 11, 2013, and you can still hear the podcast from their website. In the podcast, someone uses the word to describe music intended to appeal to the audience although not really very good, and other uses echo this sense of motivation by money where that motivation is not quite respectable.

A little look around Google Books suggests that the word is mostly used in legal contexts or in style manuals discussing the word itself. I did turn up one more literary use of the word, in William Faulkner’s Light in August: "He watches quietly the puny, unhorsed figure moving with the precarious and meretricious cleverness of animals balanced on their hinder legs; that cleverness of which man animal is so fatuously proud and which constantly betrays him by means of natural laws like gravity." (I only found this passage cited in other books; perhaps the full text of Light in August is not yet available online.)

The word is also in Johnson’s dictionary, but of course that takes up back a while.

In The History Boys: A Play By Alan Bennett, a character uses the word and then must explain what he meant by it.

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    "Well, meretricious and a happy new year." -- Gore Vidal. – David Richerby Aug 21 at 15:49

utilitarian (MWD)

exhibiting or preferring mere utility

He's not a bad guy, just very utilitarian.

  • utilitarian is also a philosophical word, implying someone who works for the greater good. It seems opposite to someone who ruthlessly goes by money. – Muz Aug 25 at 9:15

The word is gestapo.

From dictionary.com

Adjective (sometimes lowercase): of or resembling the Nazi Gestapo, especially in the brutal suppression of opposition.

Example:

The gestapo tactics of the soldiers were condemned by authorities.

Here, gestapo describes the brutal tactics commonly associated with mercenaries, while also setting a solid historical context to serve as an example to the reader (brutal, loyal).

  • I don't think it fits. Gestapo sounds more like someone who is blindly loyal, not someone who can be bought out by money. – Muz Aug 25 at 9:12

protected by tchrist Aug 21 at 11:12

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