ret·​ri·​bu·​tion ˌre-trə-ˈbyü-shən How to pronounce retribution (audio)
: the dispensing or receiving of reward or punishment especially in the hereafter
: something given or exacted in recompense
especially : punishment

Did you know?

With its prefix re-, meaning "back", retribution means literally "payback". And indeed we usually use it when talking about personal revenge, whether it's retribution for an insult in a high-school corridor or retribution for a guerrilla attack on a government building. But retribution isn't always so personal: God takes "divine retribution" on humans several times in the Old Testament, especially in the great Flood that wipes out almost the entire human race. And retribution for criminal acts, usually in the form of a prison sentence, is taken by the state, not the victims.

Examples of retribution in a Sentence

The elastic-faced Ruck is a real find: his Cameron is a guilt-ridden, father-dominated nerd almost paralyzed with fear of parental retribution. David Ansen, Newsweek, 16 June 1986
The two purposes that sustain the death penalty … in the Court's view are general deterrence and retribution. Thurgood Marshall, Gregg v. Georgia, 1976
" … As for Cordelia, she went insane with remorse and was shut up in a lunatic asylum. I thought that was a poetical retribution for her crime." Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables, 1908
The killer acted without fear of retribution. the neighborhood is being torn apart by an endless cycle of gang violence and retribution
Recent Examples on the Web Before the war, fear of Hamas retribution kept criticism of the regime largely to whispers. Hazem Balousha, Washington Post, 26 Nov. 2023 For the moment, the wave of prosecutions announced over the summer has been a key driver of support among Republican primary voters, many of whom back his allegations the court cases are political retribution. Stephanie Lai,, 12 Nov. 2023 One practical implication is that, since nobody’s to blame for anything, criminal justice shouldn’t be about retribution. Nikhil Krishnan, The New Yorker, 6 Nov. 2023 Many people here are eager for their military to enter Gaza, not just for their own safety from Hamas, but also for retribution. Alexander Smith, NBC News, 19 Oct. 2023 In first public comments since stalking allegations, top LAPD official denies wrongdoing Oct. 17, 2023 Friends of the detective agreed to to share their recollections of conversations with him on the condition that their names not be used for fear of retribution. Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times, 18 Oct. 2023 So, Sela believes that Marie came back not just for an apology but retribution as well. Brian Davids, The Hollywood Reporter, 14 Nov. 2023 But in the communities being hit, there is rising anger and vows of retribution. Susannah George, Washington Post, 13 Nov. 2023 Russians always stood aside – no use of air defenses, no retribution. Melik Kaylan, Forbes, 13 Nov. 2023 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'retribution.' 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 retribucioun, from Anglo-French, from Late Latin retribution-, retributio, from Latin retribuere to pay back, from re- + tribuere to pay — more at tribute

First Known Use

14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

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

Dictionary Entries Near retribution

Cite this Entry

“Retribution.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 10 Dec. 2023.

Kids Definition


ret·​ri·​bu·​tion ˌre-trə-ˈbyü-shən How to pronounce retribution (audio)
: something given in payment for a wrong : punishment

Legal Definition


ret·​ri·​bu·​tion ˌre-trə-ˈbyü-shən How to pronounce retribution (audio)
: punishment imposed (as on a convicted criminal) for purposes of repayment or revenge for the wrong committed

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