[ pen-i-ten-shuh-ree ]
/ ˌpɛn ɪˈtɛn ʃə ri /
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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.
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Origin of penitentiary

1375–1425; late Middle English penitenciarie priest who administers penance, prison <Medieval Latin pēnitēntiārius of penance. See penitence, -ary
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2022


What does penitentiary mean?

A penitentiary is a prison, especially a state or federal prison in the United States or Canada.

Penitentiaries typically house criminals who have committed major crimes. The word is often used in formal contexts. In less formal and slang usage, it is often shortened to pen or the pen, such as in the phrase state pen (a penitentiary run by a state government, as opposed to the federal government). It is sometimes used as an adjective describing related things.

Less commonly, the word is used as the name of a special type of Roman Catholic tribunal.

Example: If convicted, your client is facing a life sentence in a federal penitentiary.

Where does penitentiary come from?

The first records of penitentiary come from around the 1400s. It comes from the Medieval Latin pēnitēntiārius, from Latin paenitēns, meaning “penitent.” Penitent can mean “expressing sorrow or remorse for an offense” or “a person who expresses such remorse.” Penitentiary, penitent, penance, and repent are all related to the Latin verb paenitēre, meaning “to regret” or “to be sorry.”

Many people use the words prison and jail interchangeably, but in most cases a prison houses long-term inmates convicted of major crimes, especially violent crimes such as murder and armed robbery. A jail, on the other hand, typically holds people who have been convicted of minor offenses or who are awaiting trial. Penitentiary almost always refers to prison. It is most often used in the official names of state and federal prisons in the U.S. and Canada.

A more specific and less common use of penitentiary refers to a Roman Catholic tribunal presided over by a cardinal (a high-ranking bishop). Such a body has authority over certain matters like penance and confession.

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What are some other forms related to penitentiary?

What are some synonyms for penitentiary?

What are some words that share a root or word element with penitentiary

What are some words that often get used in discussing penitentiary?

How is penitentiary used in real life?

Penitentiary is typically used in a formal way, especially as the name of state and federal prisons in the U.S. and Canada. In everyday speech, the word prison is much more commonly used.



Try using penitentiary!

Are the prisoners in a penitentiary more likely to be serving a short-term sentence or a long-term sentence?

A. short-term
B. long-term

How to use penitentiary in a sentence

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