Pain - penal - penalty - penance - penitence - penitent - punish - repent - repentance - repentant

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There is a group of words containing the element '-pent-', most of which are important in Christian theology and practice. This page is a short guide to their use. Most of them, if not all (see the etymological note below) are derived from the Latin noun poena 'pain', 'punishment' or 'penalty'.

  • A few of these words are not specifically Christian in their use:
    • pain, 'suffering'
    • penal, 'to do with punishment [normally that carried out by the laws of the country]', 'To penalize' is 'to impose a penalty on'.
    • penalty, 'punishment', 'loss [of money, liberty, life etc] consequent upon a failure [to obey a law, fulfil a contract, etc]'. In football, a form of free (unchallenged) kick.
    • penitentiary - now almost always an American term for 'a prison' or 'jail'. Historians may find the term used for 'a home for women with irregular sex-lives [prostitutes, unmarried mothers, etc]'. In the Roman Catholic church, it has been used for priests, places or religious orders devoted to penance.
    • penology, '[sociological] study of prisons, punishment etc', '[legal and administrative] study of penal policy', 'a philosophy of punishment'.
    • punish, 'to make someone suffer for a [legal] offence'
  • For a discussion of the specifically Christian teaching and meaning, go to Penance, where you will find the central meaning discussed.
    • Penance is
      • 1) the Sacrament of some Christian churches in which sinners are reconciled to God by regretful behaviour, or by punishment;
      • 2) such a punishment in various forms. (In archaic English, it was used for "the terrible sentence of ... peine forte et dure (Blackstone, W. (1768) Commentaries on the Laws of England IV. xxv. 320, cited OED).
    • Penitence, although originally interchangeable with 'penance', is now used predominantly to mean 'the emotion of sorrowful regret for having done wrong'. In the Roman Catholic and other churches, it has more technical meanings to do with the sacrament of penance.
      • The related adjective penitent means much the same as 'repentant', 'feeling sorrow for one's sins and intending not to repeat them'. As an agent-noun, it has some more particular uses for Christians: a penitent is 'one who has confessed sins to a priest', and, in former times, one undergoing public humiliation, and often other punishments, as an act of public penance. (See also penitent - penitente,for a geographical oddity.)
      • A further adjective, penitential, refers to the various practices, etc, associated with penitence. The penitential psalms are seven of the Psalms with suitable meanings for penitent sinners.
    • The verb to repent means 'to regret one's sins', 'to feel sorrow and remorse for one's wrong-doing'. (There is a homographic adjective current in biological contexts which has nothing to do with this verb - see repent (disambiguation).)
      • The related noun is repentance and the adjective repentant. A 'repentant sinner' is one who, having broken God's laws, is returning from wicked ways to virtuous ones.

Etymological note: There is disagreement about the etymological root of penance. That there was a Late Latin form poenitere suggests to many (including Cresswell, 2009) a derivation from poena, 'pain', 'penalty', with an obvious potential link in the sense; but OED cites it in the classical form paenitēre (mentioning also the forms pēnitēre, poenitēre), saying that it is "generally thought to be related to paene 'almost' ... perhaps via an unattested adjective *paenitus." Hoad (1996) follows this line. There is an impersonal verb in Latin [me or mihi] paenitet, meaning 'it repents me', or 'I repent' - 'I am sorry for what I have done'.