This is the full read-only archive of the "Ask the Wordwizard" section of the original Wordwizard site. The responses to the questions originate from Jonathon Green, the compiler of the Cassell Dictionary of Slang and numerous other dictionaries.
I would like to know the date of the first usage of the
word "penitentiary" to mean "prison". In answering this,
could you please direct me to a print source that I
can cite for this?
Submitted by Kathleen Auerhahn (Riverside CA - U.S.A.)
Signature: Topic imported and archived
The true first use of penitentiary came in 1577 when it was defined as 'of or pertaining to penance; administering, or undergoing, penance.' Its use to mean prison began in 1816, when it was used as an abbreviation for the 18C term 'Penitentiary House'.
Signature: Jonathon Green