Merriam-Webster Logo
  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
  • Scrabble
  • Spanish Central
  • Learner's Dictionary


adjective car·cer·al \ˈkär-sə-rəl\

Definition of carceral

  1. :  of, relating to, or suggesting a jail or prison

Did You Know?

Describing a painting of John Howard visiting a prison in 1787, Robert Hughes wrote that Howard was "the pioneer of English carceral reform" (Time Magazine, November 11, 1985). "Prison reform" might be the more common phrase, but the use of "carceral" was by no means unprecedented. Vladimir Nabokov, in his inimitable prose, described a prison scene in Invitation to a Beheading thusly: "The door opened, whining, rattling and groaning in keeping with all the rules of carceral counterpoint." An adjective borrowed directly from Late Latin, "carceral" appeared shortly after "incarcerate" ("to imprison"), which first showed up in English around the mid-1500s; they're both ultimately from "carcer," Latin for prison.

Origin of carceral

Late Latin, from Latin carcer prison

First Known Use: circa 1587

Seen and Heard

What made you want to look up carceral? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


expressing little or no emotion

Get Word of the Day daily email!