pen·​u·​ry ˈpen-yə-rē How to pronounce penury (audio)
: a cramping and oppressive lack of resources (such as money)
especially : severe poverty
: extreme and often stingy frugality

Did you know?

The exact meaning of "penury" (from Latin penuria, meaning "want") can vary a bit from context to context. It sometimes has had a broad sense of "lack" or "scarcity," as when one character remarks on another's "penury of conversation" in Jane Austen's Emma. It can also mean "frugality," as in Edith Wharton's description of an excessively thrifty hostess in The Age of Innocence: "Her relatives considered that the penury of her table discredited the Mingott name, which had always been associated with good living." The most common sense of "penury," however, is simply "poverty," as in Shakespeare's As You Like It: "Shall I keep your hogs, and eat husks with them? What prodigal portion have I spent that I should come to such penury?"

Choose the Right Synonym for penury

poverty, indigence, penury, want, destitution mean the state of one with insufficient resources.

poverty may cover a range from extreme want of necessities to an absence of material comforts.

the extreme poverty of the slum dwellers

indigence implies seriously straitened circumstances.

the indigence of her years as a graduate student

penury suggests a cramping or oppressive lack of money.

a catastrophic illness that condemned them to years of penury

want and destitution imply extreme poverty that threatens life itself through starvation or exposure.

lived in a perpetual state of want
the widespread destitution in countries beset by famine

Examples of penury in a Sentence

lived in a time when single women like herself faced a lifetime of genteel penury
Recent Examples on the Web The role filled him with pride—his great fear wasn’t penury or dispossession but to be thought of as not useful. Anand Gopal, The New Yorker, 11 Mar. 2024 Cillian Murphy is not sitting at home in monkish penury. Vulture, 3 Feb. 2024 As a result, Pinchas never passed the Russian examination, condemning his wife and children to a life of penury. Adam Kirsch, The New Yorker, 27 Nov. 2023 Its economy has collapsed completely, plunging a once relatively prosperous society into penury, with over 80 percent of Lebanese now living in poverty. Hussein Ibish, The New Republic, 24 Oct. 2023 Just before his death, Pierre L’Enfant lived in penury in Chillum as a guest of another Digges at Green Hill, a mansion that is now home to the Pallottine Seminary. John Kelly, Washington Post, 15 July 2023 Taxing Elon Musk into penury is not going to affect the price of a pound of 93 percent lean hamburger at Trader Joe’s — and that price is the sort of thing that the Biden administration should be worrying about for both substantive and political reasons. The Editors, National Review, 18 May 2022 It had been replaced by such as entrants as Monopoly, which rewarded winners with riches, punished losers with penury and became one of the top-selling board games in the United States during the Depression. Washington Post, 17 Sep. 2021 Looking at the data, two things can make the difference between comfort and penury. Scott Burns, Dallas News, 14 Mar. 2023

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'penury.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


Middle English, from Latin penuria, paenuria want; perhaps akin to Latin paene almost

First Known Use

14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of penury was in the 14th century


Dictionary Entries Near penury

Cite this Entry

“Penury.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 22 May. 2024.

Kids Definition


pen·​u·​ry ˈpen-yə-rē How to pronounce penury (audio)
: extreme poverty

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