I'm currently trying to figure out the exact meaning of the word duress in the sense forcible restraint or imprisonment. The Oxford Dictionary tells me that this meaning of the word is archaic. I've been searching for examples on Google Books for a while and have found, among others, this sentence:

It is not always necessary that a person be actually confined within the silent walls of a jail or prison to be under duress, restraint, or imprisonment.


My question is: what is the special meaning here that sets duress apart from restraint and especially imprisonment so it is listed here together with the two other words?

  • As in, use this special password if someone has a gun to your head, i.e. if "under duress"? youtube.com/watch?v=fx77j1vl4d8 May 23, 2017 at 22:28
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    To be "under duress" is to be under the thumb of any circumstance that takes away your freedom of choice. That is the meaning in its broadest sense. May 23, 2017 at 22:36
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    You do not have to be physically restrained or imprisoned to be "under duress". For example, you could be threatened with blackmail. A contract signed under such circumstances would not be binding. May 23, 2017 at 22:37
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    As an aside, "duress" is also recognised in contract law as a reason for a contract to be nullified or set aside: e-lawresources.co.uk/Duress.php
    – Myles
    May 23, 2017 at 23:52
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    Etymology source is here.
    – Myles
    May 23, 2017 at 23:56

2 Answers 2


As TRomano mentions in his comments, the modern meaning of "duress" means any action that coerces someone to do (or not do) what the coercer wants. As such it could include imprisonment or restraint, but it can also include torture, blackmail, threats, intimidation, and any other imaginable coercion.

However, the archaic meaning of duress is synonymous with restraint or imprisonment.

If a prisoner, by duress of the gaoler, comes to an untimely end, it is murder. It is not necessary tu make it duress, that there should be actual strokes or wounds. And in ... the putting into is duress or into a place too strait ... If a man die in prison is to take an inquest upon the view of body and if it is found by the inquisition the person was brought nearer to death farther from life per dure gard it is felony. source

This passage seems to say that if a prisoner dies while in custody (duress), the jailer (gaoler) can be charged with a felony even if the prisoner was not beaten, but simply imprisoned under harsh conditions ("a place too strait").


If you look back to Middle English, "Prison" was used for a place of captives of war (Prison is related to "prize", in the sense that people were "won" during battles).

Duress is related to French/latin words meaning "hard", in the sense of "difficult, harsh treatment". In the middle ages, prison was not considered a punishment in itself, but to hold a person so they could later be punished by beating or execution.

Both words are part of the French terminology that entered English in the centuries following the Norman invasion, when the rulers of the country spoke a French dialect. The Anglo-Saxon English word was cweatern (which survives in the expression "give no quarter" source.)

In modern English, duress is usually used in the phrase "under duress" meaning "forced to do" (by threats, or blackmail)

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