jail, gaol and prison

Gemma wrote some time ago to ask about jail and prison, starting with:
I would (as a British person) use them interchangeably (is this the norm in the UK, or is it just me?) but I've had the impression on several occasions that an American author has expected me to understand that one (jail?) is used for a regional facility for lesser offenders, and the other for a federal facility. Or perhaps you can set me straight? And who (if anyone) uses the spelling "gaol"?

There is indeed a US-UK difference here, almost as Gemma has stated it.

Attica Correctional Facility (Wikipedia)
In the US, jails are where people are taken when they are arrested, and it may be where they stay for a very light sentence. The jail will be run by the county or municipality.  If, after sentencing, the person is to be incarcerated for any significant amount of time, they will be sent to prison.

An American prison is not necessarily federal,  there are state prisons as well. Which one you go to depends on whether you committed a federal offen{c/s}e or broke a state law. (This is complicated by the fact that many crimes are both. So, probably the more relevant issue is whether you were tried in a federal court or not.)  Personal note: I'm originally from the town whose name is synonymous with 'deadly prison riot', Attica. My grandmother (long before the rioting) had been the warden's secretary.

In the UK, as Gemma noted, people tend to use the two words interchangeably, though the actual places today are called prisons, since they are part of Her Majesty's Prison System. The things I know of that are called gaols are no longer in use. If you're arrested, you'll be held in police custody--in a cell at the police station or a central remand centre, run by the police, not the prison service.

As for the spelling: the two spellings go way back. Gaol came into Middle English from Old Northern French gaiole (or gayolle or gaole) and jail came into Middle English from Old French jaiole (or jaole or jeole). They're ultimately related and they're (now) pronounced the same, but English was lucky(?) enough to get both. The OED says the Old Northern French version
remains as a written form in the archaic spelling gaol (chiefly due to statutory and official tradition); but this is obsolete in the spoken language, where the surviving word is jail, repr. Old Parisian French and Middle English jaiole, jaile. Hence though both forms gaol, jail, are still written, only the latter is spoken. In U.S. jail is the official spelling.  
Looking on the GloWBE corpus, it seems Australia is very fond of the gaol spelling, even using it as a verb in significant numbers (though still only about 10% of the rate of jail as a verb).

Of course, there are lots of other terms. On the formal side, we have penitentiary and correctional facility. Penitentiary comes from ecclesiastical practice, but these days it means a non-religious prison, and the OED marks it as 'originally and chiefly North American'. American facilities are more likely to have words like these in their names because the names can vary by state. In the UK, the official names are all "HM Prison [place name]", e.g. HM Prison Manchester, or HMP Manchester. (That's a gratuitous, if indirect, Smiths reference.)

Much slang regarding prisons is going to be different in the two countries. Given that I'm working from dictionaries, these are going to be rather dated, but...

American-origin slang for jails/prisons includes: the pokey, the big house, the cooler, and others.

In the UK you're in the nick, choky (from Indian English), quod, the glasshouse and others. Or you might be at her Majesty's pleasure or doing porridge. 

I'm just going to go ahead and assume that you can google those if you want more information about them.


  1. I think, though, that most British people's impression of prison has been gained from Ronnie Barker's wonderful "Porridge".... "Norman Stanley Fletcher....." https://www.youtube.com/user/Porridge1973

  2. Thanks for such a comprehensive answer Lynne!

    I bet there's an absolute ton(ne) of slang relating to going to prison.

    One related term I've heard in Scotland that I like is "lifted" (getting arrested). My laddie got lifted in Glesga last night.

  3. An old one I don't hear now is 'in the clink'. I just googled it and apparently The Clink was a notorious prison in Southwark between 1144 and 1780.

    1. And it is now open as a museum. Not as scary as the London Dungeon, but similar idea. it's on the south bank of the Thames in London.

    2. I am in the ‘Midlands’ UK and have always heard & used the word Clink.

  4. No Smiths reference is ever gratuitous, in my opinion.

    Somewhat off-topic, but in the US we also have the abominable practice of having private, for-profit prisons run by corporations.


  5. My Australian perspective is that "gaol" brings to mind one of those old stone ones from centuries past that in many cases have been converted to museums.

  6. You may be incidentally interested to know that over the entrance to the Galleries of Justice on High Pavement in Nottingham, UK, the stone mason clearly had football on his mind as he chiselled the words COUNTY GAOL. Someone must, in passing, have seen that he was cutting the word GOAL. They didn't remove the stones and start again, no, he simply continued with GAOL. To this day you can clearly see his error. Google it!
    I, British to my bones, regard jail (or gaol), as a smaller and, perhaps more temporary place of detention than prison.
    Your blog is marvellous.

  7. Was "penitentiary" really American in origin? The Millbank prison in London was built in 1816 and described as a "penitentiary" to distinguish it from other prisons which were used to hold prisoners until they were transported or executed. It was called the "National Penitentiary". The idea was that spending time in prison was the punishment. The term seems to have died out fairly quickly.


    "The Clink was a notorious prison in Southwark between 1144 and 1780" - there's now a sign marking the place where it stood. The "glasshouse" was a military prison.

  8. I don’t think we Brits ever say the choky. The phrase is rather rather [to be] in choky. As the OED will tell you, the word is a borrowing from Hindi, presumably originating as army slang; in 1873 it was considered ‘very vulgar’. Now it's just old-fashioned, like other Hindi/Urdu borrowings such as [to have a] dekko and blighty.

    1. Americans sometimes use "pokie" for jail. As in, "He's in the pokie for 90 days." (Note the "the.") Sounds a bit like "choky." 馃槈

  9. The glasshouse is (BrE) army slang, the husband of a friend of mind did time in the glasshouse before being dishonourably discharged some years ago. I think the navy has different slang but I can't remember what it is and my friend with navy connections is on holiday away from email. (Seriously, who does things like that?)

    While I'd say and write jail, and the people that work there are correctly prison officers, I might think of them as gaolers. Certainly not as jailers though, even though my spell-checker doesn't object to the term.

    There's probably a hundred blog posts on the prison slang that's got into everyday usage and the differences between the UK and US versions too. And you missed out borstals in your quick tour of the history of the British Penal system. Prison for under-21's, and abolished in 1982 according to Wikipedia. But I used to go on holiday to somewhere about 3 miles away from a prison and a borstal during my school summer holidays and we had an escape most summers. I remember the gaolers and police sweeping through the fields searching for escapees.

  10. The Clink prison is now a museum - at least, there is a museum on the site. Week with a visit if you're in London, although perhaps not with small children.

  11. Incidentally, on the gaol/goal mix-up. I think it was during the Jeremy Thorpe affair in the seventies I read a news item that someone had read out a press release. I forget which two parties were named, but what he'd read out was, "X did not meet Y before he was in goal, while he was in goal, nor after he was in goal."

  12. @madseavets: The word 'penitentiary' goes back to the 1500s, the first sense being 'A place of penitential discipline or punishment for ecclesiastical offences', which OED marks as 'obsolete'. The next sense (1806) is 'a refuge for fallen women', which OED marks as 'now historical'. The third sense, which as I said they mark as 'orig. and chiefly N. Amer.', has first citation in 1807 in something congressional: "So soon as the apartments in the second story of the public jail and penitentiary shall be fit for the reception and safekeeping of Aaron Burr, he [shall] be removed thereto."

    (I quote it in full for fans of Hamilton.)

    Then they cite Milbank in 1816.

  13. Colin Wells

    I remember that building as The Shire Hall. What i didn't know at the time is that the name signified that it was administratively not part of Nottingham but of Nottinghamshire.

    Your historical imagining may be wide of the mark. The OED reports that the spellings goal and goale were

    common, alike in official and general use, from the 16th to the 18th cent

    So it's entirely possible that the original carving was deliberate.

    I've found an accessible picture of the carving with its visible spelling correction.
    click here.

    The OED isn't even sure that it was a spelling mistake. Yes, they see this as a possibility, but they also consider the idea that people were copying the sound of the French ge么le.

  14. I wonder how many Americans know the difference between a jail and a prison. Outside of the astoundingly high number of us who have actually been through the system, that is.

  15. David,
    Being familiar with the Shire Hall, which you correctly call it, and having looked closely at the word GAOL, I think there is no doubt that the original GOAL was seen as a mistake, as the O and A of goal are superficially chiselled, whereas the A and O of gaol, are complete.

  16. Thanks John Wells--I've removed the offending 'the'.

  17. slartybartfast

    I've no doubt that somebody regarded GOAL as an error. But I can well see the mason being told to use a spelling that had been current, then being interrupted by someone who wanted the place to look modern.

  18. I agree, David, but what a strange decision, to leave what can look like nothing more than a cock-up. Still, I am glad it is the way it s.

  19. Two other UK expressions, Lynne, which you may have missed because they don't have nouns in them, are 'inside' and 'time' or 'doing time'.

  20. @mlf The New York Times apparently doesn't know the distinction (as described in this post).

  21. 'Doing time' and 'inside' are used in both countries. I hadn't added 'the clink' for the same reason. Though the original Clink is in London, it was from long enough ago that the word went over with the colonists.

  22. Re vp's comment: 'jail' gets used in headlinese in for reasons of brevity. Within the article it's used as described here: 'jail' is to refer to a 60-day lock-up, and 'prison' for where he'll spend 40 years.

  23. I have to throw in the old name for prisons for young people in Britain and in other Commonwealth countries: borstal. Children would be sent to borstal in order that they'd be kept away from older inmates, who were of course a bad influence. However borstals could be, by some accounts, rather brutal places that did more to steer boys toward crime than away from it.

    One of my relatives from the early 20th century went to Borstal Prison as a boy, and went on to a fairly spectacular career in burglary, before settling down and writing a few books under the pen-name, "George Ingram."

    The borstal system was named after the first juvenile detention facility of its name, in (or near) the town of Borstal in Kent. It's an ugly name for what was an ugly system.

  24. Since you mentioned military imprisonment, is there any dialectal difference in the usage of "brig"? In the US military, at least, it's both a noun meaning a place of imprisonment, though IME it has much of the connotation of AmE "jail", and a verb meaning to arrest and imprison in the brig ("Brig him!").

    The Online Etymology Dictionary speculates that the term comes from the use of old brigantines as prison hulks. I will not speculate on the veracity of that.

    The long term military imprisonment facility at Ft. Leavenworth is officially referred to as a "disciplinary barracks", for what that's worth.

    1. In my experience, "brig" was a naval-only term. At least in movies depicting US Army matters up to WWII, the term used was "stockade". I was in the US Air Force for 9 years, but have no idea what the of foal term was--but we never called it the brig or the stockade.

  25. I have to throw in the old name for prisons for young people in Britain and in other Commonwealth countries

    Then there were things called "approved schools", less tough than borstal, apparently, but also for young offenders.

    I used to live in a place called Newton Aycliffe in the north of England. To the north east of the town was Aycliffe School, an approved school. To the south west of the town was the village of School Aycliffe, supposedly named after a Viking called Skule. Made for fun if someone asked directions.

  26. In the Northeast U.S., decades ago, I used to hear "clink" as slang for prison. Also, in the U.S., the word "penitentiary" is often aptly shortened to "pen." I thought it was slang, but Merriam-Webster's 10th Collegiate Dictionary simply lists it as a noun, dating to at least 1884.

  27. I recently edited two different audits that touched on aspects of Washington state's jail/prison systems, and went to and fro with the authors about whether we had to use both jail and prison or could just use one word or t'other.

    I learned that (at least here in WA) people are held in city, county or tribal jails while awaiting their court date, and if sentenced to serve a year or less behind bars, they are returned to a jail. Sentences of a year and a day (how poetic!) or more mean they are sent to a state prison, called here a correctional center/complex, or the state penetentiary. All 12 are referred to as the state prison system, run by the Dept of Corrections.

    In some ways, the most vexing part of one edit was that author's insistence the persons behind bars be called 'incarcerated individuals' -- my suggestions of 'inmate' or 'prisoner' were vigorously resisted on the grounds the people in question were not sentenced to prison, just the county jail.

    (You can read them on the State Auditor's website at http://1.usa.gov/1UNJP60 and http://1.usa.gov/1T7QWFC if you're interested in the finished products.)

  28. lynneguist> If you're arrested, you'll be held in police custody--in a cell at the police station or a central remand centre, run by the police, not the prison service.

    True, but once you have been charged and have appeared before a magistrate you will either be bailed or remanded into the custody of the prison service.

    And the UK is trying out private prisons too (or again as in historic eras)

    An unexpected difference has just turned up. A private prisons must enforce no smoking, Her Majesty's prisons need not since part 1 of the Health Act 2006 doesn't specify that it binds the Crown.

  29. How odd our language is. In both our dialects, if you're in prison, you're a prisoner - but if you're in jail, you're probably not the jailer!

  30. Missing so far from this discussion, I think, is bridewell. Originally Bridewell an old London prison/poorhouse at St Bride's Well, but other cities had a Bridewell, not just as a slang term. I'm thinking particularly of Bristol, where the main Bridewell Police Station is in Bridewell Street. I associate the colloquialism with Irish usage in particular, and with police cells rather than a big long-term prison so closer to the US jail. In A Hard Days Night, Wilfrid Brambell talks of the police having "got him [Ringo] in the Bridewell".

    1. My understanding is that the cell-block in a large police station is called the Bridewell: I know that Leeds has one. They're named, as you say, after the original prison in Bridewell, London.

      Then there's porridge, stir, a stretch, etc.

  31. To weigh in on the French connection, ‘ge么le’ [蕭ol] in present-day French is an archaic/literary term for ‘prison', while ‘gayole’ [伞蓱j蓴l] still exists in Walloon for ‘cage'.

  32. The OED wasn't considering that ge么le as used today might be an influence. The goal spelling became common in the sixteenth century (and lasted until the eighteenth).

    They cite an 'Old Parisian French' form jaiole, but seem to imply that ge么le or something very similar would be the sixteenth-century form.

    Interestingly the Walloon form they cite is spelled gaioule, together with Pickard gayole.

    The OED entry hasn't been fully revised — possibly not since 1900.

    Incidentally, I was puzzled by Lynne's reference to 'Northern French' rather than 'Norman'. But this stems from the wording of the OED entry. I wonder whether the word just hasn't been preserved in Old Norman French texts.

  33. enitharmion

    Bridewell occurs in a couple (at least) of pre-war Blues songs. Judging from this lyric, it seems to have been used for a town jail

    Now you can lose your temper : but please don't lose your head
    I'm going to search this shack this morning : come on and hear this search warrant read

    Last time I searched this shack : you know I found half a pint of gin
    Now what's the meaning of all this here liquor : call the wagon because I'm going to run you in

    You've had lots of breaks : but here's what I'm going to tell you before you go
    You better get on your knees and ask for mercy : because the judge giving breaks no more

    They got you charged with having liquor : now tell me what is your plea
    You know I been giving you a-many break : but the break this morning belongs to me

    Well you's a pretty good woman : and living in a nice neighborhood
    But I think one hundred and costs : and thirty days in Bridewell will do you good

    Don't get back at me Betty : because I'm liable to change my mind
    And change your sentence from the Bridewell : send you to the pen for ninety-nine

    'The pen' is the penitentiary. In this context, that means a huge State prison farm with an economic model and human resource policy not hugely different from a plantation back in the days of slavery.

    'Ninety-nine' is ninety-nine years. This is a frequent sentence in blues songs — but that might be an exaggeration and/or a useful rhyme.

    On a Monday I was arrested : on a Tuesday I was tried
    Judge found me guilty : and I hung my head and cried

    Judge : what'll be my fine
    Says a pick and a shovel : way down Joe Brown's coal mine

    Be light on me judge : I ain't been here before
    Give you ninety-nine years : don't come back here no more

    The joke works only if we (momentarily) take seriously that he might re-offend. But the following can't be serious even for a moment:

    Six months ain't no sentence : one year ain't no time
    There's boys on the penitentiary : doing a hundred and ninety-nine

  34. Another American slang for jail: slammer

  35. Two American terms that originated in the southwest, but became widespread nationally:

    "calaboose" (from Spanish "calabozo" meaning dungeon) - used by Mark Twain; and

    "hoosegow" (from Spanish "juzgado" meaning a tribunal or court of justice). "Hoose" rhymes with "loose" and "gow" rhymes with "cow."

    I almost never hear "calaboose" any more but once in a while I hear that somebody is "in the hoosegow."

    U.S. federal prisons often contain white-collar criminals, and are often referred to as "Club Fed." Example: "What is so-and-so doing these days?" -- "He's modeling orange jumpsuits for Club Fed." (He's wearing a prison uniform.)

    I think "bridewell" and "borstal" are nearly unknown in the U.S. One term for juvenile detention is "juvy" - rhymes with "groovy."

  36. All this reminds me of a song we had an old 78 recording of when I was a kid: Eleven more months and Ten More Days.

    Indeed, I think it started, "I'm in the hoosegow once again." And the refrain was, "In eleven more months and ten more days, they're going to turn me loose, In eleven more months and ten more days, I'l be out of the calaboose.".

    Although, one line that confused me was, "All on account of a gallon of corn, that I thought I could drink." How could someone drink a gallon of wheat?

  37. @ David Crosbie

    Thanks for the input from the OED, which I didn't have in front of me when posting my previous comment as I was away from both home and office.

    Of course the modern ge么le isn't an influence, but its shared etymology with gaol explains the pronunciation of the latter.
    The [g] / [蕭] divide is a common feature of the difference between Central French and Northern (and Norman) French (cf. jardin (CF) / gardin (NF). The fact that English has garden means it was borrowed in the OE/ME period under the influence of the Normans (even before the invasion: the OED has 1028 for the first occurrence), while the pronunciation of gaol/jail shows that it was borrowed later, when French had become more standardized across the country.

  38. The Hold Steady's lyric in their song Chillout Tent clarified the difference for me:
    "He was rough around the edges, he'd been to school but never finished
    He'd been to jail but never prison."


  39. "Missing so far from this discussion, I think, is bridewell. Originally Bridewell an old London prison/poorhouse at St Bride's Well, but other cities had a Bridewell, not just as a slang term. I'm thinking particularly of Bristol, where the main Bridewell Police Station is in Bridewell Street. I associate the colloquialism with Irish usage in particular, and with police cells rather than a big long-term prison so closer to the US jail. In A Hard Days Night, Wilfrid Brambell talks of the police having "got him [Ringo] in the Bridewell"."

    Liverpool used to have more than one:


    New York also had one:

  40. Don't forget "stretch", strictly meaning five years' imprisonment (or as strictly as slang words ever get), but more loosely referring to any length term.

    A newspaper might refer to someone serving "a ten-year stretch", but prisoners would say "a ten-stretch".

  41. @Paul Dormer,

    In the States, "corn" is only maize, whether sweet or feed corn. Wheat is wheat, but never corn. "Corn" could also be short for "corn liquor," which would be moonshine made from corn. A gallon of moonshine would be bad news indeed.

  42. Diane: I know all that now, but when I first heard that song I was about 7.

    My grandfather always used to call Corn Flakes Wheat Flakes, because he knew wheat was the correct name for corn. Of course, even there, he was wrong. The dictionaries usually say that in Britain, corn means the local cash crop, so in some parts of the country it could be oats or barley.

  43. @Diane Benjamin said... In the States, "corn" is only maize,

    Bit more complicated, because they would read the corn=grain usage in the AV/ King James translation eg "corn in Egypt" and in the book of Ruth.

  44. Paul Dormer

    I remember the song well. As a small boy I was devoted to The Billy Cotton Band Show on the radio, especially the novelty numbers by Alan Breeze. Breezey's repertoire wasn't huge, so this and other favourites would turn up again every few weeks.

    But your hoosegow threw me. That's not what Breezey sang. A little googling reveals that British performers sang I'm in the lock-up, which fits the music and makes sense. They also sang a gallon of beer that I thought I could drink, which rhymes and fits the music, but doesn't make a lot of sense. According to "jackpayndepfan"

    This song was popular in the U.K. towards the end of 1931, there were eleven dance band versions plus various other personality versions.

    A film of one of the dance band versions is posted on YouTube with the Ambrose Orchestra's trombonist Leslie Carew putting on a George Forby accent.

    I look up hoosegow in the OED. It's a slang term of some persistence — with quotes dating from 1911 to 1973. And that in a non-updated entry. One of the quotes is from PG Wodehouse, so it must have been pretty well known once.

    It's actually a Latin American Spanish word juzgoa shortened from juzgado meaning 'judged' and hence 'tribunal'.


    It's actually a Latin American Spanish word juzgao...

  46. Vague memory of Lee Marvin on Terry Wogan's chat show in the UK in the 1980s, referring to being "in goal". My assumption was that he was doing a translation to British English, thought that "gaol" was needed, but wasn't sure of the pronunciation.

  47. Interesting, David. I too was a fan of Billy Cotton in those days - watched his Saturday night TV show and listened to his Sunday lunchtime radio show.

    I suspect, however, that the recording we had must have been American performers, though. But it was over fifty years ago now. My father had a huge collection of old 78s. I wonder how many of them have survived. My sister has them now.

    One of the other records we had was a song called Ali Baba's Camel, also from the thirties, I believe. It was only many years later that I discovered that the Bonzos did a cover of this in the sixties, which I don't think I've ever heard.

  48. Just a curiosity question concerning the OED definition & its phrasing. How can gaol be "obsolete in the SPOKEN language, where the surviving word is jail" if the pronunciation of both words is the same? Also, "both forms gaol, jail, are still written, only the latter is spoken". Does it mean that they actually had a different pronunciation back in the days?


  49. That confused me too, Anonymous. They give no indication of another pronunciation.

    1. Thanks for your reply Lynneguist.

      /Beata (BW)

  50. I take the OED to be saying that there were, in effect, two words in Middle English, which they number 1) and 2)...

    1) This was the Norman word. There were five basic spellings, plus some variations, but all began ga- and ended in -ll or -le. In between some spellings had -i- and many had -o-.

    It seems evident that pronunciations must have included gajol, gail and gahol. The second of these survived in Early Modern English with the spelling gaille, but disappeared in the sixteenth century. The third survived with the spelling gaol before also disappearing as a pronunciation. But the spelling gaol persisted.

    2) This was the French word. Again the spellings point to various pronunciations: early 胜ajol and 胜aol leading to modern 蕭eol. Middle English spelling followed the French convention of letter-J for before letter-A, letter-O and letter-U. By the same convention, letter-G before these letters represented g.

    In Middle English (though apparently not in French) there was a pronunciation without an O-sound, deducible from the spellings jayle , jaile , jail. The latter spelling became standardised and retained when the sound represented by -ai- changed to its modern value.

    The OED is saying, I think, that word 1) disappeared from the spoken language, but left an enduring spelling in the written language.

    When I say 'two words', I don't mean that any given speaker would have two related words for the same concept, just that different speakers said and wrote different things.

    Take Shakespeare. It seems incredible that he though of more than one word. Yet according to David Crustal's new Dictionary of Original Shakespearian Pronunciation, he — or rather his publishers — used the spellings goal and iaille. And we can tell which pronunciation he preferred from Sonnet 133

    But then my friend's heart let my poor heart bail
    Who e'er keeps me, let my heart be his guard;
    Thou canst not then use rigour in my jail/gaol.
    And yet thou wilt, for I, being pent in thee,
    Perforce am thine, and all that is in me.

  51. Another old Br term for prison/gaol is jug.

    Doing "porridge" is more used by the general population (influenced by the TV sitcom, maybe?) than by prisoners these days (it's about 20 years since the traditional prison breakfast was replaced by a small box of breakfast cereal and a pack of UHT milk). Doing bird is used much more (from rhyming slang for time: bird lime).

    Also common amongst prisoners is chaw. Like nick, this can also mean steal or arrest. E.g. "I chawed a video but got chawed and ended up in chaw".

    At Her Majesty's pleasure, although often used by the general public facetiously/euphemisticly, is in fact -- as Wikipedia notes -- a legal term of art referring to indefinite imprisonment, when one is literally held as long as it pleases HM['s Govt].

    Incidentally prison-for-profit is also big in the UK now, with consequent deterioration of conditions. The profiteers are all the usual suspects: Serco, G4S etc etc.

    *I used to think this was spelt CHORE when I'd only ever heard it, but I think I've seen it spelt like this by slangist Jonathon Green.

    1. to Zouk.

      'Chor' (as I would probably spell it) is pure urdu/panjabi for thief, and most likely entered the language via the British army in India. I do remember phrases like 'who's chorred me pen' from my schooldays.

  52. When I looked up hoosegow it should have occurred to me to look up the so-much-more-familiar calaboose.

    Like clink and bridewell, this proves to be the name of an actual jail. This one was located in New Orleans and bore this Louisiana Creole name, derived from Spanish calabozo meaning 'dungeon'.

  53. Another term from an actual gaol is jug. Newgate Prison in London was known as the Stone Jug, a nickname used by Dickens in Oliver Twist.

  54. I would add "banged up" for the UK, and "in the joint" for the US.

  55. "Chor", interestingly, is Urdu/Punjabi for "thief". I guess it entered BrEnglish via the British Army, as did many other words from Indian languages.

  56. Laurie

    Strictly speaking, being "banged up" means being locked in a cell. So if you're in the exercise yard or have the run of the wing for any reason, you're not banged up. Conversely, if for reasons of security, discipline or otherwise you are confined to your cell all day (except for the obligatory 1hr exercise allowed per day in the UK) you're "on bang-up".

  57. As an American Westerner (California), I'd learned hoosegow when I was very young, probably from TV Westerns, but didn't encounter gaol until I was in my teens and discovered Oscar Wilde's "The Ballad of Reading Gaol." The title utterly confused me; I thought it had something to do with reading (a book? a poem?), and that gaol might be a Hebrew word, pronounced ga-OHL.

  58. In the US, there's also the sarcastically euphemistic "guest of the State," which seems similar to the British "at Her/His Majesty's pleasure."

    1. Her majesty’s pleasure was only used for prisoners who had no idea when they would be released, usually a murderer and was kept until her or his majesty signed them out

  59. John Duffy

    Probably a good guess about the origin of what I've spelt chaw (and previously had envisoned as chore). Any particular reason you write what you say is Urdu/Punjabi as chor? Presumably when it's written in one of those languages our alphabet isn't used?

    As I explained above, at Her Majesty's pleasure is a legal term for a very specific type of indeterminate sentence of imprisonment. You do, however, sometimes hear the direct equivalent of your phrase: a guest of Her Majesty.

    Of course there is also the simple inside for "in prison", which I imagine is probably current in the US (and elsewhere) too. Also here in England, a prisoner refers to his life outside prison as life on the out.

  60. To Zouk Delors,

    "chor" because my Pakistani/Kashmiri pupils, from whom I learnt the usage, pronounce it "chorr", with a short trill at the end, almost as we would say "brrr" when cold.

    One of my former pupils, for instance, was known as "Sajid Chorr" by the local community, because of his thieving habits.

    Growing up in the north-east of England, we had the word "chor", to rhyme with "core", as in "Who's chorred me pencil?"

  61. Very interesting!
    I (an American) have also used jail and prison interchangeably, though more timidly since one of my friends who has been scolded me for getting it wrong once (but without explaining what the difference was, so I didn't know until reading this blog).
    I also had no idea that gaol was pronounced the same as jail (these days anyway). I was always a bit troubled in my mental pronunciation, figuring something between "goal" and "gull".

  62. BrE, Scot. In my dialect, jail has the PRICE vowel. The term “fly”, meaning cunning or devious, used to be widely used in the term “fly as a jailer”. As is common in the US, we tend to say “in the hospital”, and would also say “in the jail”, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard “in THE prison”. Glasgow’s main prison, Barlinnie, is often referred to as “the Bar-L”, reflecting a tradional Scottish love of cowboy books and films. Less pleasantly, throughout the UK, underage girls are referred to as “jail bait”.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)