Legal Dictionary


Definition of debt


    From Old French dete (French: dette) < Mediaeval Latin dēbita < Latin dēbitum ("what is owed, a debt, a duty"), neuter of dēbitus, perfect passive participle of dēbeō ("I owe"), contraction of *dehibeō ("literally I have from") < de ("from") + habeō ("I have").

The unpronounced "b" in the modern English spelling, is a Latinisation from the Latin etmyon dēbitum.



debt (plural debts)

  1. An action, state of mind, or object one has an obligation to perform for another, adopt toward another, or give to another.

    * 1589, William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part I, act 1, sc. 3,
    Revenge the jeering and disdain'd contempt
    Of this proud king, who studies day and night
    To answer all the debt he owes to you
    Even with the bloody payment of your deaths.

    * 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, ch. 14,
    This long debt of confidence, due from me to him, whose bane and ruin I have been, shall at length be paid.

  2. The state or condition of owing something to another.

    I am in your debt.

  3. Money that one person or entity owes or is required to pay to another, generally as a result of a loan or other financial transaction.

    * 1919, Upton Sinclair, Jimmie Higgins, ch. 15,
    Bolsheviki had repudiated the four-billion-dollar debt which the government of the Tsar had contracted with the bankers.

Derived terms

  • bad debt
  • debt-equity ratio
  • debt-laden
  • domestic debt
  • external debt
  • foreign debt
  • in debt
  • national debt

Related terms

  • debit
  • debitor
  • debtor
  • indebted

Further reading

Debt is that which is owed; usually referencing assets owed, but the term can also cover moral obligations and other interactions not requiring money. In the case of assets, debt is a means of using future purchasing power in the present before a summation has been earned. Some companies and corporations use debt as a part of their overall corporate finance strategy.

A debt is created when a creditor agrees to lend a sum of assets to a debtor. In modern society, debt is usually granted with expected repayment; in many cases, plus interest. Historically, debt was responsible for the creation of indentured servants.


  1. Wiktionary. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.


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