Is there a word, preferably a verb, that means that keeping a large group of people in a small confined space?

For example, the US government "kept" a large number of child migrants at its detention centre. What more informative word should we use to replace the generic word "kept"?

  • 3
    Closely related: idiom or word for a very crowded place Feb 13, 2023 at 12:09
  • 4
    "Housed" I believe is a more accurate word. Your request to replace the word "kept" is very different then trying to insinuate a position on quantity of persons being included. There is a distinction and as written, the statement "a large number" makes it clear there are a lot. replacing "kept" with a word indicating quantity would repeat the statement.
    – htm11h
    Feb 13, 2023 at 18:13
  • 1
    Do you want a negatively connoted term?
    – Lambie
    Feb 13, 2023 at 18:58
  • 2
    adj. overcrowded Feb 14, 2023 at 4:26
  • Beware of hyperbole in a number of the answers, unless that's what you're going for.
    – JamieB
    Feb 15, 2023 at 20:06

8 Answers 8


I don't know why I can't find an appropriate dictionary definition (it's not even in the full Oxford English Dictionary), but...

[Many child migrants] were coralled in [a detention centre].

Even though I can't find a definition, there are lots of matches for the highlighted search string, so the intended sense is obvious.

Ooops! My bad spelling (but given the "lots of matches" I found in Google Books, I don't feel too embarrassed! :) ...

corral (noun) Merriam-Webster
a pen or enclosure for confining or capturing livestock

corral (transitive verb)
to enclose in a corral

...which regardless of whether it's corralled or (far less common) corraled, still gets far more hits in Google Books than my completely mis-spelled version above.

A more recent term specifically used in the context of (riot) police packing protesters into a small, easily-controlled space...

Kettling (also known as containment or corralling) is a police tactic for controlling large crowds during demonstrations or protests. It involves the formation of large cordons of police officers who then move to contain a crowd within a limited area.

But no-one seems to have mentioned the obvious choice...

The US government confined a large number of child migrants at its detention centre.

  • 1
    I'd guess the less-common corraled is a US variant. But I've always associated corral with the Wild West, suggesting that should be more common. There's really no need to keep your initial wrong spelling in the answer - I tried to edit, but the change was too far-reaching for anyone except yourself to get right! Feb 14, 2023 at 7:51
  • I was initially going to distinguish the two different spellings as AmE and BrE in my answer text (as with traveled, cancelled, etc.). But a quick check on NGrams made it obvious that this is one case where the single-L spelling is uncommon even in the AmE corpus, so I contented myself with far less common. Feb 14, 2023 at 11:35
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    @fectin: Nonsense. No less than three words in the short M-W definition (pen, enclosure, confining) all strongly imply "crowding" into a limited area. It's effectively oxymoronic to speak of people being corralled into a large area. Feb 14, 2023 at 14:06
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    @TobySpeight Even in American English, root-final <l> is doubled when in a stressed syllable (cf. excel and appal, both of which get doubled <ll> in both AmE and BrE), so you wouldn’t expect there to be any non-doubled forms at all. Perhaps it’s because there’s some variation in whether the last syllable has a long or short vowel (/æl/ or /ɑːl/) in this particular word. Feb 14, 2023 at 14:13
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    For me, corralling evokes the act of driving the people into an enclosure, and corralled evokes being driven, while packed as requested by the OP instead evokes the (resulting) state, not the act that led to this state. Feb 14, 2023 at 15:57

If you want to stress the idea of many people packed into a confined space you can use cram:

to force a lot of things into a small space:

Eight children were crammed into the back of the car.

(Cambridge Dictionary)

  • this was my first thought, but cram does seem to have a positive image "it was a great night out we were crammed in, such an atmosphere"
    – WendyG
    Feb 15, 2023 at 12:38
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    @WendyG - not sure there is anything positive about people crammed into a confined space.
    – Gio
    Feb 15, 2023 at 12:59
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    Your "packed into" is good in its own right. Feb 16, 2023 at 11:47


If people or things are squashed into a place, they are put or pushed into a place where there is not enough room for them to be.

  • There were 2000 people squashed into her recent show. (Collins)
  • 2
    My house is a squash and a squeeze. (Julia Donaldson) Feb 14, 2023 at 9:05

A word with positive connotations is gather, which can be transitive:

: to bring together : collect

tried to gather a crowd

Or intransitive:

: to come together in a body

: to cluster around a focus of attraction

A word with negative connotations is concentrate, also either transitive or intransitive.

: to bring or direct toward a common center or objective : focus

: gather, collect

Cuban immigrants who concentrate in Florida

Beware; this could be, in context, much too pejorative. The Nazi death camps were “concentration camps.”

  • 5
    Presumably the term concentration camp, as used in the Boer war and for the Nazi forced-labour and execution sites, originates from exactly this meaning? Feb 14, 2023 at 7:54
  • 1
    @TobySpeight Yes. Regardless of the etymology, however, the term “concentration camp” is now too strongly associated with the Holocaust to be used in its early-20th-century meaning. (Similarly, “eugenics” and “euthanasia” originally meant something else before the Nazis used them as euphemisms.)
    – Davislor
    Feb 14, 2023 at 15:42
  • @TobySpeight And thanks for catching my typo.
    – Davislor
    Feb 14, 2023 at 15:44
  • Oh, I agree about the connotations; just musing on the etymology. I should learn to keep my internal voice where it belongs... Feb 14, 2023 at 16:02
  • I'd note Nazi death camps are "extermination camps", built with the explicit purpose of the mass murder of Jews. They're distinct from concentration camps. Feb 16, 2023 at 12:38

Wiktionary (here amended slightly) lists 'sardine' as a verb, and includes the picturesque broadened, arguably informal, sense:

sardine ... [verb] ...

  • to fish for sardines
  • [transitive] to pack or cram together tightly [usually used with a PP, eg 'into the small room']


  • [1986, The New Yorker - Vol 62]:

Would it be unbearably elitist to suggest that they would be more enjoyable still if the director removed a row or two of chairs, instead of sardining as many listeners as possible into the intimate music room?

  • [2007, Julie Kavanagh, Nureyev: The Life]:

There were already six members of the Nureyev family living in a room sixteen meters square, the children sardined on one mattress on the floor, their parents separated by only a curtain.

Another verb that could be used here is shoehorn [Cambridge Dictionary]:

shoehorn [verb] [transitive]

  • to fit something or someone into a tight place:


  • We’d have to build another school to shoehorn all our students in.
  • A large number of child migrants were shoehorned / sardined into the detention centre.

Neither of these suggested verbs strongly implies 'kept over an extended period'.

  • 1
    "shoehorn" has the connotation of adding a small amount of new... whatever it is, to a space that is already nearly full. The idea of "fitting" is also often inherently understood to be metaphorical rather than literal. You could say that you're "shoehorning" one more child migrant into a detention centre that is already full of them, but it sounds like looking for an excuse for holding the child there, rather than physically making room. In any event it doesn't make sense for describing the overall process. Feb 15, 2023 at 23:28

If your point is that they were kepy very close together, you could say that they were kept shoulder to shoulder. Collins defines this as follows:

If two or more people stand shoulder to shoulder, they are standing next to each other, with their shoulders touching.

  • 1
    A more vulgar equivalent is “nuts to butts”. Feb 14, 2023 at 23:05


to bring or come together in one place

ETYMOLOGY: 17c: from Latin con- together + centrum centre.

Source: Chambers Dictionary

This is the sense of the word which gives us 'Concentration Camp', which originally meant

A camp for the concentration and temporary accommodation of large numbers of troops awaiting active service.

Source: OED (membership login required)

and more frequently now means

a prison camp used to detain civilians who are not tolerated by the authorities, especially in Nazi Germany.

Source: Chambers Dictionary



Child migrants were stuffed into detention centres

  1. fill (a receptacle or space) tightly with something.
  2. force or cram (something) tightly into a receptacle or space.
  3. [informal] hastily force (something) into a space.

Oxford English Dictionary

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