Dictionary Definition

plenipotentiary n : a diplomat who is fully authorized to represent his or her government

User Contributed Dictionary



First attested in 1645. From etyl la plenipotentiarius from plenipotens from plenus + potentia.


  • a RP /ˌplɛn.ɪ.pəʊˈtɛn.ʃər.i/|/ˌplɛn.ɪ.pəʊˈtɛn.ʃi.ər.i/, /%plEn.I.p@U"tEn.SI.@r.I/
  • a US /plɛn.ɪ.poʊˈtɛn.ʃər.i/|/plɛn.ɪ.poʊˈtɛn.ʃi.ər.i/


  1. A person invested with full power, especially as the agent or ambassador of a sovereign
    1985: Two of them are hanging up there on Golgotha, and that ought to be enough to show the authority of Rome’s ah plenipotentiary. — Anthony Burgess, Kingdom of the Wicked



person invested with supreme authority


  1. Invested with full power.
  2. Of, or related to a plenipotentiary



invested with full power
of, or related to a plenipotentiary

Extensive Definition

The word plenipotentiary (from the Latin, plenus + potens, full + power) has two meanings.
As a noun, it refers to a person who has "full powers". In particular, the term commonly refers to a diplomat who is fully authorized to represent their government as a prerogative (e.g., ambassador).
As an adjective, plenipotentiary refers to that which confers "full powers".


Historically, before systems of rapid international transport (such as cars, trains and aircraft) or virtually instantaneous communication (such as radio or telephone) were commonplace, diplomatic mission chiefs were granted full (plenipotentiary) powers to represent their government in negotiations with their host nation, in the expectation that any representations made or agreements reached with them would be recognized and complied with by their government.
As Minister (understood of the crown or republic) was the common generic term for high diplomats (they were usually recruited from the same, in monarchies mostly aristocratic, circles as many cabinet members and other court, state and military officials, even clerics, often jumping between these spheres during their career) it became customary in most states to style the chiefs of full ranking missions Minister Plenipotentiary, rather equivalent to the modern Ambassador (which style was long rare, except in Venice, and even longer reserved for missions between the great powers). In fact states would not systematically maintain permanent missions at a bilateral level (there were very numerous small principalities, hardly worth the expense), or only with major, neighboring or closely allied powers, but rather dispatch a mission for a limited task, such as negotiating a peace, alliance or other major treaty, either bilaterally or at a broader conference, and indeed also as a representative at such august assemblies as the Imperial Diet of the Holy Roman Empire (many Reichsfürsten, especially if so only in secondary quality, as in chief of a minor territorial possession in Germany, would not appear in person but send a Minister, empowered to cast their votes; even external powers with serious interests could thus be represented, without a vote).
The most common rank below that was Minister Resident or Resident Minister (see that article- also in colonial indirect rule), well below comes the Chargé d'affaires, who is not even accredited to the Head of state but just at the government level.
By the time of the Vienna Congress (1814-15), which codified diplomatic relations, Ambassador had become a common title too, and was established as the only class above Minister Plenipotentiary, and would gradually become the only common style for bilaterial mission chiefs as their ranks no longer tend to reflect the importance of the states, which are in principle treated as formally equal.
In modern times, heads of state and of government, and more junior ministers and officials, can easily meet or speak with each other personally, so ambassadors arguably do not require plenipotentiary powers, but they continue to be designated and accredited as extraordinary and plenipotentiary.

Administering Plenipotentiaries

Central governments have, on occasion, resorted to conferring plenipotentiary status (either formally, as may be reflected in the office's titulature, or de facto) on territorial governors or others positioned within remote territories, especially where their remoteness makes it impossible for the central government to maintain the communications and control necessary to advance the central government's policies, laws and initiatives.
On the other hand it also happened that in one circonscription an office normally carrying such broad mandate was conferred on one high-profile person, such as a minor member of the ruling house styled viceroy, while secret instructions limited his or her power drastically, by conferring a plenipotentiary mandate to someone else (especially of lower birth) despite a lower title. Thus it is not always the formal position held by the individual that determines the plenipotentiary status, even in situations where class or caste are otherwise determining factors for titles or position.
Even in modern, more mobile times, this title has been revived on certain instances, including forms of protectorate or indirect rule.


  • 1879 - 1884 explorer Henry Morton Stanley (b. 1841 - d. 1904) was styled Plenipotentiary of the Committee for the Studies of Upper Congo (CEHC) (from 1882, renamed International Association of the Congo [AIC], a front for the ambitions of Belgian King Leopold II, not supported by the Belgian government) in Equatorial Africa, while military command lay with four consecutive Commandants of the (leading) station at Karema; on 22 April 1884 the International Association of the Congo became the independent Free Congo State, under regular authorities (headed, strictly personal, by Belgian king Leopold II), at first Administrators-general.

Pre-World War II Europe

  • On the Greek island of Crete, after the President of the Executive Commission of the Cretan Assembly, Ioannis Konstantinou Sphakianakis (b. 1848 - d. 1924), had exerced executive power 20 March - 21 December 1898 after evicting the last Ottoman Wali, a Supreme Plenipotentiary Commissioner of the (Christian protecting) Powers headed the official administration of the 20 March 1898 instituted Cretan State (formally under Ottoman suzerainty until Independence declared on 6 October 1908):
    • 21 December 1898 - 30 September 1906 Prince Georgios of Greece (b. 1869 - d. 1959)
    • 1 October 1906 - 30 September 1911 Alexandros Thrasivoulou Zaimis (b. 1855 - d. 1936); then, 30 September 1911 - 30 May 1913, the post remained vacant but was not abolished until the island was officially incorporated into the Kingdom of the Hellenes, i.e. Greece.
  • In Slovakia, 15 January 1927 - 28 June 1928 Josef Kállay (b. 1881 - d. 1939) was Minister Plenipotentiary and Administrator of the Czechoslovak government

For the Nazi Reich

  • in Slovakia, July 1939 - 4 April 1945, three consecutive German Envoys and Ministers Plenipotentiary (the old diplomatic style) formally represented the Reich in the fascist puppet state (14 March 1939 - 3 April 1945) of Jozef Tiso (b. 1887 - d. 1947; former Czechoslovak Ministers for Slovak Affairs 6 October - 28 November 1938) HSLS (acting to 26 October 1939; from 1942 self-styled Vodca "Leader", a typical extreme right nationalist Führer-imitation
  • in the occupied Netherlands, the Dutch being a Germanic people, under a Reichskommissar ('Imperial Commissioner'), German Plenipotentiaries were appointed during 1940-45 at the provincial level by the side of the regular Dutch Provincial Commissioners in Drenthe, Friesland, Gelderland, Groningen, Limburg, North Holland, Overijssel, Utrecht and South Holland, and during 1940-1944 in North Brabant and Zeeland .
  • in Denmark, another Germanic country under Nazi-German occupation (9 April 1940 - 5 May 1945), initially a German protectorate was established, led by a Reichsbevollmächtigter ('Imperial Plenipotentiary'). On 29 August 1943, the German Nazis took over direct administration under a Reichskommissar ('Imperial Commissioner')
  • in the middle 1944, Joseph Goebbels was named Reich Plenipotentiary for Total War on the home front (Reichsbevollmächtigter für den totalen Kriegseinsatz an der Heimatfront), as other Nazi personalities earned Plenipotentiary titles inside the Reich's government. Heinrich Himmler held the title of Generalbevollmächtigter für die Verwaltung or general plenipotentiary for the entire Reich's administration. His aide, Walter Schellenberg, held the title of Sonderbevollmächtigter or specialplenipotentiary to Himmler. Granting absolute power over a particular or general governmental matter to a single individual was a pervasive practice among the top Nazis.
  • the German de facto military takeover of Italy, its major European Axis-ally, after Mussolini's military and political collapse (he was pro forma restyled Provisional Head of State and Prime minister of the "Italian Social Republic", i.e. the fascist Counter Government at Saló) was headed 12 September 1943 - 28 April 1945 by a German Plenipotentiary: Rudolf Rahn (b. 1900 - d. 1975); there were separate military commanders.


On May 18, 2000, in the post-Soviet Russian Federation the title Plenipotentiary of the President was established for the appointees of the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, in each of the seven federal districts created on May 13: Dalnevostochny (Far Eastern), Privolzhsky (Volga Region), Severo-Zapadny (North Western), Sibirsky (Siberian), Tsentralny (Central), Uralsky (Ural) and Yuzhny (Southern).

On translating "plenipotentiary"

This word has been voted as one of the ten English words that are hardest to translate in June 2004 by Today Translations, a British translation company . However, almost the exact word exists in at least some of the Romance languages (such as Portuguese - plenipotenciário; French - plénipotentiaire; Romanian - plenipotenţiar), with the exact same meaning, as well as in other languages (for instance, German - Bevollmächtigt(er) (adjective or noun), Dutch Gevolmachtigd(e), Swedish fullmäktig, Norwegian fullmektig - all these Germanic cases are literal parallels; Czech zplnomocněný (plno=full, moc=power), Bulgarian пълномощен (pǎlnomošten), Finnish täysivaltainen), Turkish tam yetkili, and Tatar wäqälätle.

See also

plenipotentiary in French: Ministre plénipotentiaire
plenipotentiary in Korean: 특명전권대사
plenipotentiary in Japanese: 特命全権大使
plenipotentiary in Chinese: 大使

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

absolute, all-powerful, almighty, ambassador, ambassadorial, ambassadress, apostolic delegate, attache, career diplomat, chancellor, charge, commercial attache, consul, consul general, consular, consular agent, diplomat, diplomatic, diplomatic agent, diplomatist, emissary, envoy, envoy extraordinary, foreign service officer, internuncio, legate, military attache, minister, minister plenipotentiary, minister resident, ministerial, nuncio, omnipotent, resident, secretary of legation, sovereign, supreme, unlimited, vice-consul, vice-legate
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