[ pen-i-ten-shuh-ree ]
/ ˌpɛn ɪˈtɛn ʃə ri /

noun, plural pen·i·ten·tia·ries.

a place for imprisonment, reformatory discipline, or punishment, especially a prison maintained in the U.S. by a state or the federal government for serious offenders.
Roman Catholic Church. a tribunal in the Curia Romana, presided over by a cardinal (grand penitentiary), having jurisdiction over certain matters, as penance, confession, dispensation, absolution, and impediments, and dealing with questions of conscience reserved for the Holy See.


(of an offense) punishable by imprisonment in a penitentiary.
of, relating to, or intended for imprisonment, reformatory discipline, or punishment.

Nearby words

  1. penitente,
  2. penitentes,
  3. penitential,
  4. penitential psalm,
  5. penitential psalms,
  6. penitently,
  7. penitis,
  8. penki,
  9. penknife,
  10. penlight

Origin of penitentiary

1375–1425; late Middle English penitenciarie priest who administers penance, prison < Medieval Latin pēnitēntiārius of penance. See penitence, -ary Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2019

Examples from the Web for penitentiary

British Dictionary definitions for penitentiary


/ (ˌpɛnɪˈtɛnʃərɪ) /

noun plural -ries

(in the US and Canada) a state or federal prison: in Canada, esp a federal prison for offenders convicted of serious crimesSometimes shortened to: pen
RC Church
  1. a cleric appointed to supervise the administration of the sacrament of penance in a particular area
  2. a priest who has special faculties to absolve particularly grave sins
  3. a cardinal who presides over a tribunal that decides all matters affecting the sacrament of penance
  4. this tribunal itself


another word for penitential (def. 1)
US and Canadian (of an offence) punishable by imprisonment in a penitentiary

Word Origin for penitentiary

C15 (meaning also: an officer dealing with penances): from Medieval Latin poenitēntiārius, from Latin paenitēns penitent

Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for penitentiary



early 15c., "place of punishment for offenses against the church," from Medieval Latin penitentiaria, from fem. of penitentiarius (adj.) "of penance," from Latin paenitentia "penitence" (see penitence). Meaning "house of correction" (originally an asylum for prostitutes) is from 1806, short for penitentiary house (1776). Slang shortening pen is attested from 1884.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper