Both corporeal and corporal have similar etymologies, and the difference seems to be very nuanced (see the fact that EO points us to corporality, meaning of corporeal existence).

From Etymology Online:

Corporal (adj.) - "of or belonging to the body," late 14c., from Old French corporal (12c., Modern French corporel) "of the body, physical, strong," from Latin corporalis "pertaining to the body," from corpus (genitive corporis) "body" (from PIE root *kwrep- "body, form, appearance"). Corporal punishment "punishment of the body" (as opposed to fine or loss of rank or privilege) is from 1580s. Related: Corporality.

Corporeal (adj.) - early 15c., with adjectival suffix -al (1) + Latin corporeus "of the nature of a body," from corpus "body" (living or dead), from PIE *kwrpes, from root *kwrep- "body, form, appearance."

If something was corporeal punishment, what would it be then? Or, would saying corporeal punishment be technically correct but only hit our ears wrong?

If they are different enough, what about the e makes this so?

  • Note the difference: “of or belonging to the body” vs “of the nature of a body” The nature of a body is much more esoteric or abstract, conceptual.
    – Jim
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 20:48
  • When discussing the difference between yelling at a child and spanking them, are we not discussing physical vs mental in the way corporeal would best be used? Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 1:29
  • The OED records corporeal only from 1610, but corporal from around 1400.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 0:01

2 Answers 2


While the two have once had a greater overlap in meaning (Shakespeare uses corporal were we today would use corporeal in MacBeth), the two differ in meaning more than in etymology.

Corporeal means of the body as opposed to the mind or spirit. Corporal means of the body as in paying attention to the actual individual body.

Since by "corporal punishment" we mean such punishment as flogging, spanking, mouth-soaping, amputation, branding, etc that is inflicted on the actual individual body, it falls under the second use.

The distinction was one of preference rather than firm definition until relatively recently. I mentioned Shakespeare above using corporal for corporeal, and as late as the mid 1800s we do find "corporeal punishment", but such uses were increasingly against the general trend, and now they are more firmly separated in precisely how each relates to the body.

  • 2
    From OED. Corporal comes from Latin corporalis Corporeal comes from late Latin corporealis, from Latin corporeus Any guess on if this is a meaningful difference in Latin? I totally buy the notion that this is just an instance of language evolving through preference, and it seems that with the two answers thus far that it may have been influenced by English becoming more standardized as well.
    – Roux
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 20:45
  • 1
    AFAICT, they always leant towards the current meaning, but people were once more willing to stretch them to wider senses, and being already close that means using one were the other was the norm. Corporeal perhaps came from the Latin later because for its meaning in terms of religion and philosophy people would have just used Latin rather than English for the whole thing, and its need in English wasn't as strong until the rise of the vernacular in those fields.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 21:02
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    From the definitions you give it seems "corporeal punishment" would actually make more sense - punishment of the body as opposed to the mind or spirit. Also, it avoids the ambiguity of how you describe punishment of or by certain E-4 grade NCOs.
    – Michael
    Commented Mar 5, 2018 at 21:39

Corporal is generally used with punishment, corporeal is a more literary term with a different connotation:

  • Corporal is most often seen in the phrase "corporal punishment," which refers to physical punishment, like a spanking, as opposed to nonphysical punishment, like a fine or loss of a privilege. (Corporal punishment is now limited to the kind of physical punishment that doesn't do anyone in; capital punishment is the sort that results in the death of the one being punished.)

  • Corporeal is at home in literary contexts, where it describes what is bodily as opposed to what is not—be it mental, emotional, metaphysical, or supernatural. Corporeal is familiar in religious contexts too, where the corporeal is often contrasted specifically with the spiritual. In legal contexts corporeal moves beyond the body to describe things (such as property and money) that exist in the same physical realm that the body exists in, as opposed to the nonphysical realm of reputations and well-being and the like.


See also Ngram : corporal punishment vs corporeal punishment

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