Villainize and vilify are two extremely similar verbs...


verb (used with object),vil·i·fied, vil·i·fy·ing.

  1. to speak ill of; defame; slander.
  2. Obsolete. to make vile.


verb (used with object)vil·lain·ized, vil·lain·iz·ing.

  1. to speak ill of; disparage; vilify.

In modern usage (ignoring the obsolete second definition of vilify) are there any notable differences between these words? Any situations where you'd use one but not the other? Any distinct connotations? Or are these exact synonyms?

  • 3
    Generally speaking, villainize is not much used whereas vilify is.
    – Lambie
    Commented Oct 27, 2023 at 15:47
  • And there are no exact synonyms. There is always some difference, or else one term will disappear. Commented Oct 27, 2023 at 16:11
  • According to dictionary.com, villainize is recorded from the 1620 or so and vilify since the 1400s, so maybe another way to phrase this question is "how much longer before villainize disappears?"
    – bjmc
    Commented Oct 27, 2023 at 16:18

1 Answer 1


As an aside, Merriam-Webster gives also an intransitive usage of 'villainize', 'to play the villain'.

It simply considers the transitive sense synonymous with 'villify'.

But I'd say there is a difference in the types of direct object most commonly used with the transitive verbs (though as said, 'villainise' is rare in any event). Wiktionary backs up this impression:

villainize [/ villainise] verb [transitive]

to represent as a villain

The referent of the direct object is here constrained to be a sentient being. Though obviously this is not the complete picture, as personification can be used. But I'd say this would be a rare use of a verb rarely used in the first place.

Contrast the following from Cambridge Dictionary:

vilify verb [transitive]

to say or write unpleasant things about someone or something, in order to cause other people to have a bad opinion of that person or thing: ...

  • Or perhaps they discounted the charge as yet another transparent attempt to vilify the poet .... [Cambridge English Corpus]


  • The cabinet preferred to vilify many aspects of its behaviour at the very time its support was needed most. [Cambridge English Corpus]
  • It was both celebrated as "picturesque" and vilified as a source of contamination. [Cambridge English Corpus]

A non-sentient direct object (/ passive subject) referent is now also allowed.

  • 1
    This makes sense. "vilify" seems like it would be linked with "vile", which can apply to anything, while "villainize" is linked with "villain", which is an active, evil agent.
    – Barmar
    Commented Oct 27, 2023 at 21:04

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