- 1: the lending of money with an interest charge for its use; especially : the lending of money at exorbitant interest rates
- 2: an unconscionable or exorbitant rate or amount of interest; specifically : interest in excess of a legal rate charged to a borrower for the use of money
Usury (pronounced /ˈjuːʒəri/, from Medieval Latin usuria, "interest", or from Latin usura, "interest") originally was the charging of interest on loans; this included charging a fee for the use of money, such as at a bureau de change. In places where interest became acceptable, usury was interest above the rate allowed by law. Today, usury commonly is the charging of unreasonable or relatively high rates of interest. The term is largely derived from Christian religious principles; Riba is the corresponding Arabic term and ribbit is the Hebrew word.
The pivotal change in the English-speaking world seems to have come with the permission to charge interest on lent money: particularly the 1545 act "An Acte Agaynst Usurie" (37 H.viii 9) of King Henry VIII of England.
"When money is lent on a contract to receive not only the principal sum again, but also an increase by way of compensation for the use, the increase is called interest by those who think it lawful, and usury by those who do not." (Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, p. 1336).
In the United States, usury laws are state laws that specify the maximum legal interest rate at which loans can be made. Congress has opted not to regulate interest rates on purely private transactions, although it arguably has the power to do so under the interstate commerce clause of Article I of the Constitution.
Congress has opted to put a federal criminal limit on interest rates by the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) definitions of "unlawful debt" which make it a federal felony to lend money at an interest rate more than two times the local state usury rate and then try to collect that "unlawful debt".
It is a federal offense to use violence or threats to collect usurious interest (or any other sort). Such activity is referred to as loan sharking, although that term is also applied to non-coercive usurious lending, or even to the practice of making consumer loans without a license in jurisdictions that require licenses.
While the practice of direct slavery is widely banned across the world, in some places debt-slavery is still practiced. A debtor who is found unable to repay a loan can be placed in a state of debt-slavery, a situation where-by their life and labors are directed by the lender until the debt is considered repaid. Usury is often a major part of extending this slavery, not uncommonly assisting in extending the debt-slavery onto the children of the debtor, thus making slaves of multiple generations and promoting child labor. Another form of or name for this practice is debt bondage
Author Michael Rowbotham uses the term "debt-slavery" when defining aspects of debt-based monetary systems which require interest to complete the economy.