Suppose a person is forced by law to serve a fixed time as a slave, before they are granted freedom. What would you call this arrangement?

It's not a contract or an agreement, because the slave does not necessarily agree to it. Arrangement is too soft and sentence too hard.

I guess a euphemism for sentence would do?


Just to put this in context, what I'm really after is a euphemistic way in which the slave's owner might refer to the finite duration of a slavery term

For instance

Geoffrey has three years left on his contract, after which I shall have to find a replacement

I'm starting to think "commitment" or "obligation" might suit better

  • Fixed-term/time-limited slavery? Jan 27, 2015 at 12:30
  • I would call it corvee. Though this is not based on a contract but merely on force. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corvée
    – skymningen
    Jan 27, 2015 at 12:38
  • 3
    Perhaps indentured? Jan 27, 2015 at 12:56
  • indentured is an adjective, although it turns out that indenture is a noun meaning exactly what I want. I think I prefer corvée though
    – roryok
    Jan 27, 2015 at 12:57
  • Corvée does not feel right to me. Note that, as explained in the Wikipedia article on the topic, “The corvée differs from forced labor in that the work obligation was intermittent and for a limited period of time: typically only a certain number of days' work each year.”
    – Gala
    Jan 27, 2015 at 18:43

4 Answers 4


It's called "indentured servitude". The term indentured refers to the contract specifically. Originally, the contract would have two copies, and a chunk of paper would be ripped out of the margin - while the papers were neatly aligned, back-to-front. This way, the originals could be identified - by their corresponding "indenture", or "torn-off part".



  • Indentured servitude is a bit of a mouthful, but I guess it's correct
    – roryok
    Jan 27, 2015 at 14:36
  • 1
    Indentured servitude involves a contract, but the OP specifically says the status is imposed rather than agreed to.
    – choster
    Jan 27, 2015 at 15:58
  • +1 But a reference would be helpful.
    – bib
    Jan 27, 2015 at 16:21
  • 2
    Indentured servitude whilst not very nice for the indentured, is not the same thing as slavery, since it does involve the indentured person's (at least purported) agreement. Under English Law no contract can be enforced if it is for an illegal purpose. In the period prior to 1833 when slavery was still legal throughout the Empire, some slaves who made it as far as the British Isles were freed by judges, since there was no principle at Common Law by which a person could be 'owned'. This was not always the case however and the courts gave inconsistent judgements on the matter.
    – WS2
    Jan 27, 2015 at 16:32
  • Under English law slaves were classified as "Goods and Chattels" so any contract to sell or buy would be the same as the sale or purchase of a Horse or a Saddle. We should bless the soul of William Wilberforce and his supporters for putting an end to this shameful practice. Oct 14, 2016 at 10:11

As Oldbag mentioned, the condition is called indentured servitude but the contract is actually called the terms of indenture. Initially, in the Americas, servitude was a contracted condition that could apply to people of disparate racial origins. Later, due to the fact that it was much easier for those with white skin to escape by mingling in with the free white majority population, servitude focused increasingly on those of African descent, and eventually was written into law as a permanent race-based condition. (My own ancestor Bazabeel Norman was actually the child of two early American indentured servants of different national and racial origins.)


Poorly organized observations

  1. "Forced by law" is redundant: the state has a monopoly on the use of force and all law is backed by the state--or it is not law. A contract, which is so-called private law, is still enforced by the state.
  2. Your second paragraph states that the person did not agree to the status of slavery. (Status is a legal term.) Therefore, indentured servitude is absolutely not the right term. "Indenture" is a contract; contracts require assent, which is a legal term.
  3. The definition of slavery does not include a requirement that the person is enslaved until they die. Most legal systems that I know of did enslave a person for life, but not all.
  4. You mention the word "sentence", as in a punishment of some kind. If there is a synonym for slavery that means what you want, then the context of the involuntary slavery is paramount. (Voluntary slavery is non-existent in modern times, and it is often used as analytical tool in debates about morality, law, and governance.)

I think the word is simply slavery. My intuition is that you are unconsciously defining slavery as lasting until the enslaved person dies, but since that is not a necessary part of the definition, the idea of a shorter time period propels you to look for a different word.

  • I'm looking for a euphemism. Slavery is absolutely what it is, but the slave owners in this case would wish to refer to it as something else in polite company
    – roryok
    Jan 28, 2015 at 9:01
  • 1
    If you're looking for a euphemism, why not indentured servitude? It's actually not indentured servitude, because it's not voluntary, but has inaccuracy ever stopped people from using euphemisms? Jan 28, 2015 at 15:13
  • "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime..." (emphasis added) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Again, especially with your clarification about a euphemism, I think the context of the statement is important. Jan 28, 2015 at 21:29

Since you've mentioned "forced by law to serve a fixed time as a slave.

IMO, it's a stipulation.-make an oral contract or agreement in the verbal form of question and answer. (vocabulary.com)

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