Jail Terms

Talk about serving time! Jail, prison, and penitentiary have been the English language’s words for a place of incarceration since the days of Geoffrey Chaucer, who penned his immortal poems from 1357 to c.1390. (Chaucer’s spelling of jail as gaol served for more than five centuries, then faded away.) Prison is from Old French prisun, and its spelling in English changed to prison in the late twelfth century. Penitentiary is one form of penitent, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “One who repents with serious purpose to amend a sin or wrongdoing”; related words include penitence and repentance.

Following are colloquial terms for those buildings or complexes that are at once forbidding and rather reassuring.

the big house

Before slavery was abolished, slaves on Antebellum plantations called the owner’s home “the big house,” and housework was far preferable to cotton-picking or other field work. In the early 1900s this term began to be used to distinguish large prisons from community jails, and some linguists say its application to places of incarceration arose from imprisoned blacks’ view that forced domestic work is plantation houses had been every bit as oppressive as labor in sun-scorched fields.

the calaboose

This word for a local jail emerged in New Orleans in the late 1700s and derives from calabozo, Spanish for “dungeon.” When Harriet Beecher Stowe made it her word of choice for jail in the 1852 novel  Uncle Tom’s Cabin (“Send them to the calaboose to be flogged”… “One day I was out walking and passed the calaboose…”) the word quickly gained currency. Its use began to decline in the 1920s, but calaboose occasionally finds its way into modern-day print and speech.

the clink

If you think this word is onamatapoeic,* think again: Clink was the name of a prison in the Southwark borough of London, home to murderers, thieves, pickpockets, and myriad other lawbreakers from 1144 to 1780. The clink became slang for prison a few decades after the facility closed, peaked in the 1940s and ’50s, and remains in use today.

the hoosegow

It was cartoonist Bud Fisher who created the first continuous comic strip: Mutt and Jeff,** starring the very tall Mutt and the very short Jeff. Their first platform? The San Francisco Chronicle, in 1908. The same year, Fisher spelled juzgao (the Mexican Spanish word for jail) as “hooze gow” and put it Jeff’s mouth with “Mutt may be released from the hooze gow” — and the word took off like a rocket. Over the years it was popularized all the more by movie and radio cowboys like Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy, and Roy Rogers… and while the comic strip ended in 1982, hoosegow lives on to this day.

the pokey

Eytymologists aren’t sure why the pokey came to mean “jail” (Merriam-Webster’s assigns it an “origin uknown”), but a clue comes from one of the OED’s definitions of the word, sans the e:poky (adj.): petty in size or accommodation; affording scanty room to stir; confined, mean, shabby.” And if that doesn’t describe jail, what does? The word became synonymous with jail around 1900, peaked in usage in the 1980s, bounced back, and now is as current as ever.

the slammer

Born of gangster lingo in the mid-twentieth century, slammer is a natural match for prison and jail; after all, the point of incarceration is to keep inmates slammed inside. The first recorded use of slammer in this respect was 1952. Then, for reasons unknown, it took off in the hippie era and never looked back. In the America of today it is perhaps the most common slang word for a place of incarceration or, more euphemistically, a “correctional facility.”

up the river

The river herein is the Hudson, the waterway of New York State. The town of Ossining, 30 miles up the Hudson from New York City, is the site of Sing Sing Correctional Facility (Sing Sing is from Sinck Sint, the Mohican name for the site), which first opened its doors (and slammed them shut) in 1828 – and the expression “sent up the river” soon became shorthand for “sent to prison.”  Its use peaked around 1900 and tapered off thereafter, but this colloquialism has yet to find itself on death row.

*The noun onomatopoeia is defined as “the name of a thing or action by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it.” In this instance, think of the clink made by a jail cell door or a tin cup run across the bars.

**The term Mutt and Jeff entered the language a century ago and still hangs on to describe two people with a noteworthy difference in height. Example: “I’d be more inclined to flirt with that tall drink o’ water named Angie if she and I weren’t so Mutt and Jeff.” And thanks to the Internet, the comic strip itself can still be enjoyed. (To see for yourself, click here.)

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