US President Donald Trump has recently described the murder of a journalist in Saudi embassy in Turkey as being committed by "rogue killers". I first came across rogue in the context of rogue planets, which seem to be orbiting no mother star. I've looked up the word rogue in multiple dictionaries and yet I couldn't confirm what he meant by rogue killers, that's when I thought, "maybe a bit of etymology could help decode the word." One etymology theory links the noun rogue with roger “a beggar pretending to be a poor student”, but that doesn't explain why a a rogue elephant or planet came to mean living apart, separate, unusual and/or dangerous. Does rogue killer mean a dishonest killer, an uncontrolled killer (perhaps rogue killer robots?) or something else?

7 Answers 7


The astronomical use of "rogue" is somewhat based on the original dictionary meaning:

rogue (n): 2. An elephant or other large wild animal living apart from the herd and having savage or destructive tendencies. 2.1 A person or thing that behaves in an aberrant or unpredictable way, typically with damaging or dangerous effects.

When something is described as "rogue", it normally implies it acts under its own volition, without constraint from some governing body or authority. A "rogue killer" is someone who works alone and who kills in an unpredictable way or for obscure reasons. Trump calls Khashoggi's killers "rogue" to suggest they were not acting under any official orders (presumably from the Saudi royal family).

A "rogue planet" is one that is similarly unattached to any sun or solar system, although obviously without any sinister or dangerous agenda.

  • 6
    (a somewhat implausible idea in this instance)
    – Strawberry
    Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 15:38
  • 6
    @Strawberry Alas, I can only answer based on the intended meaning of Trump's statements, and not their veracity. That would be ... a somewhat longer answer. :)
    – Andrew
    Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 16:51
  • The etymology puts "rogue" close to "outlaw" (see dictionary.com/browse/rogue); "rogue cop" is a long-standing usage (see the 1954 film with George Raft).
    – AbuNassar
    Commented Oct 17, 2018 at 13:59
  • 1
    @AbuNassar "rogue" can have many nuanced meanings, for example Han Solo from Star Wars is often referred to in various ways as a "charming rogue". Context is important.
    – Andrew
    Commented Oct 17, 2018 at 15:38

Here, rogue refers to the phrase going rogue. See https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/were-going-rogue

The expression today is more likely to be used to indicate that someone is displaying some degree of independence or failing to follow an expected script.

Rogue planets are planets where we don't expect. Every planet should orbit a star, right? Killer robots are going rogue when they don't follow their programming. So here, I'm guessing Trump is saying the killers were not sent by the Saudi government, but they acted independently.


Rogue means acting independently, on their own initiative, not responsible to authority. He means the killers were rogues; not that they were killers of rogues.

The US is politically friendly with Saudi Arabia, Trump had a cordial visit with the Saudi administration, and there's a lot of high-dollar business between the two countries. If it turned out that the Saudi government was behind the murder of a man within one of their own embassies, it would be politically impossible to continue this level of coziness. It would be effectively a case of state-sponsored terrorism, probably an act of war. Trump does not want to put Saudi Arabia on a list of sponsors of terrorism. So it would be far more convenient if the act were "rogue".

Of course none of this is known to the public; it hasn't been concretely proven that this fellow was even killed. All we know is that he's disappeared. So I think what Trump is saying is, "If it turns out he's dead, we expect Saudi Arabia to deny that they are at fault, and we are prepared to believe that, and continue our full relationship with them."


Regardless of what the in depth definition of what the term 'rouge killers' means, effectively his use of the term is meant to shield the Saudi government from human rights violations. If Khashoggi was ordered to be killed at the behest of the leaders of Saudi Arabia, then they should be punished for this obvious violation of human rights and planned murder of a permanent American resident and respected journalist.

The Global Magnitsky Act extends the sanctions stipulated by the original Magnitsky Act to human rights violators outside of Russia. Unlike the first law, this second law does not require the president to impose any sanctions. Instead, the global version gives the president the legal authority to institute a travel ban and asset freeze on human rights violators in any country, while leaving the president with the discretion to determine whether to do so.

But to make it more difficult for the president to ignore the law, Congress included in the Global Magnitsky Act a requirement that the president respond within four months to requests from the heads of certain congressional committees for the executive branch to determine whether particular individuals engaged in human rights violations. This week’s letter, initiated by Senate Foreign Relations Committee leaders Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), triggers this requirement for the president to respond.

So if the murder was carried out by 'rogue killers' then it shifts the blame away from the government and would allow Trump to give them a pass for this murder.

The term 'rogue killers' in his usage of the phrase is meant to imply the killers were acting outside of the control of the Saudi government.

  • That's all interesting stuff but remember that this is English Language Learners, not Politics. We're looking for answers that explain the phrase "rogue killers", not detailed explanations of the politics behind his choice of phrase. Obviously the political background is relevant, but I don't think it should constitute 90% of an answer on this site. Commented Oct 17, 2018 at 13:47
  • @DavidRicherby I understand that this is not a politics section of the site; however, the context around the phrase 'rogue killers' is very political. The explanation of the phrase benefits from having information to support not only the definition of what the phrase means, but also outline the possible reasons why that phrase was used, and possible motivations for why the choice of those words carry additional meaning.
    – zbowman
    Commented Oct 17, 2018 at 17:23
  • I agree that the context is important. However, I think it's enough to state that the context is that Trump/the US would be obliged to take certain actions if the Saudi government were responsible. If they were "Rogue killers", then the Saudi government wasn't responsible, so the obligation wouldn't exist. From an English-language point of view, it's not necessary to spend two long paragraphs explaining just what those obligations are and what US laws they come from -- that's all politics, not learning English. Commented Oct 17, 2018 at 17:37
  • Anyway, you disagree, which is fine. (The downvote wasn't mine, FWIW.) Commented Oct 17, 2018 at 17:40

"to go rogue" means one or more of a group of people who operate outside the relevant existing institutions. When a government agent "goes rogue", they are no longer operating on their official orders. Therefore a "rogue killer" would be someone who is killing outside of government orders.

However, it is ambiguous, even for native English speakers. I spent the last few days thinking it meant that the journalist was being called a "rogue" and that he was being hunted down and killed for being a rogue.

I was picturing in my head a Saudi prince saying "this man is a rogue and we must kill him", that would make his killers "rogue killers". But although it is grammatically possible and not incorrect, that is not how it is being used.

  • 4
    I don't think it's really ambiguous. It's pretty common to describe people operating outside their authority as "rogue" (adjective) but it's pretty unusual to describe somebody as "a rogue" (noun) in this day and age. You're absolutely right that they could be killers of rogues (just as "cop killers" are people who kill cops, rather than cops who kill) but I don't think that's an interpretation that many native speakers would come to. Commented Oct 15, 2018 at 18:30
  • @DavidRicherby maybe too many rpg's Commented Oct 15, 2018 at 18:31
  • Ha! Yes, that might explain it! Commented Oct 15, 2018 at 18:33

Killers that are "on a frolic of their own". Not acting "within arms length" and without the explicit complicity of their handlers.

..not officially anyway. Plausible deniability and all that.
You can kill meddlesome priests and not be rogue, requiring some sort of atonement, pilgrimage etc. for the misunderstanding.

There is a thin line between over zealous and rogue, and it really boils down to them being thrown under the bus or not (disavowed) if it is good for the team.

  • 5
    It is quite likely that an English language learner will not be familiar with the (alleged) exclamation of "Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?" which led to the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170. Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 7:15
  • 1
    More generally, I think this whole answer would be very difficult to understand for a non-native speaker who is learning the language. Almost every phrase you use is either idiomatic or overly complicated (e.g., "complicity of their handlers" instead of "instructions of their leader"). Commented Oct 17, 2018 at 13:52

In Italian rough killer would translate something as 'unleashed dog' so a killer with no affiliation to any group of any sort (political, terror, etc.).

  • 1
    I assume "rough" for "rogue" is a typo? In any case, the question is asking about the meaning of the phrase in English, not about the meaning of related phrases in other languages. Also, this is not what the phrase means. It refers to somebody who killed by their own decision, rather than being ordered to do so. For example, if Saudi officials had been told to interview Khashoggi and they instead (or also) killed him, that would be a "rogue" killing. It has nothing to do with being unaffiliated to any group. Commented Oct 17, 2018 at 13:50

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .