Definition of penitentiary in English:

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Pronunciation: /ˌpenəˈten(t)SH(ə)rē/

noun (plural penitentiaries)

1North American A prison for people convicted of serious crimes.
Example sentences
  • Only about 20 of the more than 1,000 prisoners at the federal penitentiary have been convicted of crimes; many have spent years awaiting trial.
  • 14 Federal inmates were held at state and local prison facilities until the penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, was established in 1895.
  • Indeed, this promise gave the prisons or penitentiaries, as they were now often called, enormous legitimacy, making them the pride, not the shame, of the new republic.
2(In the Roman Catholic Church) a priest charged with certain aspects of the administration of the sacrament of penance.
2.1An office in the papal court forming a tribunal for deciding on questions relating to penance, dispensations, and absolution.


Late Middle English (as a term in ecclesiastical law): from medieval Latin paenitentiarius, from Latin paenitentia 'repentance'. Sense 1 dates from the early 19th century.

Words that rhyme with penitentiary

evidentiary, plenipotentiary, residentiary

For editors and proofreaders

Syllabification: pen·i·ten·tia·ry

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