• penance •
Pronunciation: pen-nêns • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun, mass (no plural)
Meaning: Pain, suffering, or self-mortification in expectation of forgiveness of some evil that we have committed.
Notes: Today's Good Word is often confused with penitence "regret for wrong-doing". Penance is a step beyond penitence; it is some act of mortification or contrition intended to show penitence. It is a lexical orphan except for possibly penanceless. As a mass noun, it doesn't even have a plural.
In Play: The idea of penance might seem to have originated in the Church: "My confessor imposed a penance of 100 Hail Marys and 10 hours of community service in the soup kitchen for keeping the money I found in the park." But imposing penance is a general punishment; we do it all the time: "Clifford, you have to do the dishes tonight in penance for that remark about too much salt in the saltimbocca."
Word History: Today's Good Word comes from Medieval Latin penitens "repenting", the present participle of penitere "to repent". This word was borrowed originally as penitence which later devolved into penance. Scholars later discovered the original and reintroduced it, but penance remained with a distinct meaning. Both are related, of course, to penitentiary, which our Puritan ancestors considered a proper place of penance, designed to help criminals regain their sense of moral rectitude.