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From Middle English hostage, ostage, from Old French hostage, ostage. This, in turn, is either from Old French hoste (host) + -age (in which case the sense development is from taking someone into "lodging" to taking them into "captivity", to applying the term to a captive),[1] or is from Vulgar Latin obsidāticum (condition of being held captive), from Latin obses (hostage, captive), with the initial h- added under the influence of hoste or another word.[2] Displaced native Old English ġīsl.



hostage (plural hostages)

  1. A person given as a pledge or security for the performance of the conditions of a treaty or similar agreement, such as to ensure the status of a vassal.
    • 1485, Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur, page 232r (Book X Chapter xxx):
      And there with alle was made hostage on bothe partyes and made hit as sure as hit myghte be that whether party had the vyctory soo to ende.
      "And therewithal was made hostage on both parties, and made it as sure as it might be, that whether party had the victory, so to end."
    • 1979, Anthony François Paulus Hulsewé, China in Central Asia: The Early Stage: 125 BC - AD 23, page 61:
      There are instances in which a state accepted a princess both from Han and from the Hsiung-nu, and "once Lou-lan had surrendered and presented tirbutary gifts [to the Han emperor], the Hsiung-nu heard of those events and sent out troups to attack [Lou-lan]. Whereupon [the king of] Lou-lan sent one son as a hostage to the Hsiung-nu and one as hostage to Han."
    • 2009, Julia Lovell, The Great Wall:
      Han tribute relations involved much the same bribery of the non-Chinese (with money, goods and princesses) as Peace and Friendship; the only qualitative difference was that the Xiongnu accepted nominal vassal status by sending a high-born hostage to China, paying homage to the emperor and offering 'tribute' (which could include objects of no particular value or use to the Chinese).
    • 2012, Adam J. Kosto, Hostages in the Middle Ages, page 199:
      The putative force of hostageship as a form of surety lay in the threat to the life of the hostage in case of default; ties of blood magnified the threat, hence the prevalence of sons as hostages.
    • 2013, A. D Lee, From Rome to Byzantium AD 363 to 565, page 123:
      He was the son of Theodemer, one of the leading Goths during the years immediately after Attila's death, and in the early 460s, at the age of seven or eight, Theoderic had been sent to Constantinople as a hostage, to guarantee an agreement between Leo and his father.
  2. A person seized in order to compel another party to act (or refrain from acting) in a certain way, because of the threat of harm to the hostage.
    • 2013, James L Greenstone, The Elements of Police Hostage and Crisis Negotiations, page 1:
      For example, a subject surprised in the act of robbery may take a hostage to use as a shield.
    • 2014, Tony Shaw, Cinematic Terror: A Global History of Terrorism on Film, page 130:
      One of the hostages pretends to be pregnant and is released at Benghazi Airport, where the aircraft refuels.
    • 2016, James Patterson, The Hostage: BookShots:
      With a ski mask pulled tightly down across his face, an uninvited guest was dragging his petrified hostage down the hall on the thirty-eighth floor towards the Presidential Suite.
  3. Something that constrains one's actions because it is at risk.
    • 1929, Forest and Outdoors - Volume 25, page 408:
      “Oh, well,” I consented sadly, “the garden will lose half of its charm, but such, I suppose, is my hostage to prosperity.”
    • 2001, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Amanda Smith, Hostage to Fortune: The Letters of Joseph P. Kennedy, page 219:
      I, too, have a hostage to the future in my large family, as you have, and my only personal satisfaction is that I will leave the heritage to them that I did the best I could for a great nation.
    • 2015, James D. Boys, Clinton's Grand Strategy, page 82:
      With a world in flux, many believed that such a doctrine risked offering a hostage to fortune that may be rendered irrelevant by a rapidly transforming world environment.
  4. One who is compelled by something, especially something that poses a threat; one who is not free to choose their own course of action.
    • 2007, Wayne W. Dyer, Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life, page 124:
      You have a choice in every moment, so you can decide to be a host to God and carry around with you the calmness that is the Tao, or you can be a hostage to your ego, which insists that you can't really help feeling disorderly when you're in circumstances that resemble pandemonium.
    • 2015, David Wingrove, The Ocean of Time: Roads to Moscow: Book Two, page 291:
      For I'm not a stupid man, and in that strange, wonderful moment of sublime and utter bliss, I am aware that such joy has its darker side, and that now, more than ever, I am vulnerable; that I have become in that instant a hostage to Fate and Time and, best and worst of all, to Love.
    • 2015, Sebastien Peyrouse, Turkmenistan:
      Can he change the situation significantly or is he a hostage to a system that is resistant to dismantling?
    • 2015, W. J. Berridge, Civil Uprisings in Modern Sudan, page 42:
      As a result, the country became a hostage to the International Monetary Fund, which dictated that its government cut back on public spending, reduce subsidies on basic foodstuffs and orient the economy towards producing export goods.
  5. The condition of being held as security or to compel someone else to act or not act in a particular way.
    • 1740, Thomas Roe, The negociations ... in his embassy to the ottoman Porte from the year. 1621-28 inclusive. Now first publ. from the originals, page 376:
      [] which number, in Januarye last, the better halfe were already sett free, and departed, and the rest attend the oportunitye of good passadge, except only some few ordayned to bee kept in hostage, for the redemption of Turkes, pretended from us; []
    • 1953, New York (State) Court of Appeals, New York Court of Appeals. Records and Briefs, page 37:
      Technically speaking, the Arnold infant was not "kidnapped" at all. Rather was she seized and held in hostage. The defendant "carried" no one away. It is true that for a brief space of time he "detained" the Arnold infant in the garage, but this act, in and of itself, does not constitute "kidnapping" in the legal sense of the word, since, in reality, he was holding her "in hostage"—as a pledge, or shield, or guarantee of his own safety. The appellant, who had spent some time in the armed forces[,] seized the child and "held her in hostage", just as prisoners of war are held in hostage.
    • 2011 October 25, Douglas W. Allen, The Institutional Revolution, Measurement and the Economic Emergence of the Modern World, University of Chicago Press, unpaged:
      The concept of “lordship” was deeper and survived longer on the Continent. On every dimension, one could argue, they engaged in less hostage capital. It is not surprising then that their wealth levels did not match those in Britain.
    • 2015, Sarah Elizabeth Schantz, Fig, page 138:
      This is what my mother must have been like when she was twelve—that is, minus the dark hair and upside-down smile and the wild animal held in hostage.

Derived terms[edit]



hostage (third-person singular simple present hostages, present participle hostaging, simple past and past participle hostaged)

  1. (possibly nonstandard) To give (someone or something) as a hostage to (someone or something else).
    • 2003, Shirley Mask Connolly, Kashubia to Canada: Crossing on the Agda : an Emigration Story, page 16, quoting some earlier work:
      " [] in voting the prolongation of the military budget on a war estimate for a span of three years, contemplates, it is said, a speedy reoccupation of the six departments of France which were hostaged to the Germans at the termination of the war."
  2. (possibly nonstandard) To hold (someone or something) hostage, especially in a way that constrains or controls the person or thing held, or in order to exchange for something else.
    • 1983, Nursing Mirror:
      Flexibility of hours is now hostaged to availability of work. Yet, despite these obvious drawbacks the appeal to nurses of freelancing seems to live on. The chief advantage of agency work is the lack of commitment or not being bound by contract ...
    • 1987, Susan Catherine Crouch, Western responses to Tanzanian socialism, 1967-83, Gower Pub Co, →ISBN:
      Thus, via the Arusha Declaration the Tanzania Government were demonstrating that its country's development would not be hostaged to the capriciousness of the West.
    • 1989, Daily Report: East Asia:
      Warning the United States against further intervention, the Reformist Forces said: “Never again shall the Filipino be hostaged to foreign might. The Filipino has (his) own mind with the Philippine interest in the highest priority."
    • 1991, Donovan Orman Roberts, Stubborn ounces--just scales: with Witness for Peace in Nicaragua : a gringo's reflections, observations, and sermons, Css Pub Co, →ISBN:
      A number of the nation's leading senators were hostaged for a $500,000 ransom and the release of Sandinistas held prisoner by Somoza. To the dictator's everlasting chagrin, Daniel Ortega was one of the commandos returned to the rebels []
    • 1996, Arnold Molina Azurin, Beyond the Cult of Dissidence in Southern Philippines and Wartorn Zones in the Global Village, →ISBN:
      He recounts how a boatload of Bajau were used as human targets by an armed band in the South, and the surviving women were hostaged for ransom: "Since everyone knew the Bajau were nearly all subsistence fishermen and the poorest [] "
    • 2013, Edna O'Brien, Country Girl: A Memoir, Little, Brown, →ISBN:
      He was annoyed at having to get out to open the green gates, and then it was on down past the olive groves and the vineyards to the villa, in which I was hostaged for eleven days.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ hostage”, in Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, 1996–present.
  2. ^ hostage”, in Unabridged,, LLC, 1995–present.

Further reading[edit]


Old French[edit]


hoste +‎ -age


hostage m (oblique plural hostages, nominative singular hostages, nominative plural hostage)

  1. hostage


  • English: hostage
  • French: otage