Gaol vs. jail

Gaol is an obsolescent spelling of the word now usually spelled jail. Other than the spelling, there is no difference between the words. Gaol was common outside North American until fairly recently (it was stamped out of American English in the early 19th century, and dropped out of Canadian use about a century later), but it underwent a steady decline through the 20th century and now appears only rarely. Its most common use today is in the names of jails, but it is still possible to find a few scattered instances of gaol as a common noun in recent writing. For reasons mysterious to us, it appears to be most common in Ireland and Australia.

75 thoughts on “Gaol vs. jail”

  1. I think, probably, what we need to do is use the word gaol gratuitously whenever we get the chance, perhaps as a deliberate misspelling of ‘goal’ to introduce interest into football conversation…

  2. Very interesting information. I would have thought Galway Gaol would be a proper noun so it is highly unlikely they would change the spelling of it to Jail. A jail in Galway, maybe possible.

  3. “Mysterious to us”. Where’s the mystery. America loves messing with the English language, and dumbing it down, to make it easier to spell words.

    • The “jail” spelling predates the United States by several hundred years and was favored in British English before briefly giving way to “gaol” through a portion of the 19th century.

      • “Mysterious to us”, perhaps because the English were still trading in slaves, subjugating nations and sending prisoners to other lands during this period.

        “For The Terms of His Natural Life” is a journalistic example of this language shift.

        Eg; The English are really horrible, they committed genocide in Australia and they sent many of their own people to gaol.

        • LOL!

          Get over yourself… or did your preferred national and/or ethnic group never kill anyone who didn’t deserve it?

          Even if you’re a native Australian, I fail to see what hating Brits does for you.

          All that invading and genocide made a bunch of money, yeah, but it was a while back, now. The island’s not so rich that all we do is just snort coke and bust maidenheads all day, ya know.

        • I think you’ll find a lot of nations have at least dabbled in slave trading and I think you’ll find we were certainly not the last country to trade slaves. Anyway if you judge a company on acts that happened over 150 years ago then clearly you are a very bigoted person as you are judging over 50 million people for something that none of them were part of. Lets look at other countries you should hate if you include all acts from history.
          1. The Germans for WW2
          2. The French for the Napoleonic empire
          3. Italy for Fascism
          4. America for the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki
          5. Russia for communism
          6. Australia for the treatment of aborigines
          7. Egypt for slavery in Ancient Egypt
          8. Mongolia for Genghis Khan
          This list could go on into the thousands easily. Do not judge countries on their history, judge them on their current actions and actions they support. I would completely agree with you if the majority of the English population believed these actions were right but this is clearly not the case.

          • What’s wrong with Russia being Communist? Really dont see how that’s comparable to the US practicing slavery for hundreds of years and nuking civilians in a foreign country.

          • well it led to over 20 million people dying in russia alone from famine and the oppressive regime, it also meant that russia could basically enslave most of eastern europe. The communist regime of russia was arguably worse than slavery from the death toll alone.

        • Sending prisoners to prison colonies was quite a lenient punishment for that time considering a lot of the prison colonies were a lot nicer than English jails which were greatly overcrowded. Also the colony system gave prisoners a second chance in a new country once they had served their time.

        • It should also be noted that English convicts played an important part in the settlement of the USA. 50,000 convicts were sent to the American colonies between 1650 and 1775, 3 times that many were sent to Australia from 1788 to 1868, It should also be remembered the population tripled in the gold rush period of 1850-1860 and convicts made up less than 1/20 of the population, about the same as the US in 1745

        • The US had slaves long after Britain had abolished it. The US also committed more than its fair share of genocide. Throughout history, every nation powerful enough to commit genocide did. That was just the way of things.

        • uuum if you are from the US you confirm the inpression given to us from there, that you are all not a bit thick, a lot thick. Which is the most famous nation for having slaves and discrimination and still do discriminate?????? Do you forget the Civil War. US is so proud on their history and yet forget this????

        • The use of the word slave is incorrect, the convicts were not owned by anyone. They were committed to work as a part of their penalty (for usually very minor crimes I will admit) and once they had completed their sentence they were in many cases granted lands to supply produce to reduce the reliance on the crown store. In fact, the colony of New South Wales was one of the first places in the world to abolish slavery by Governor Phillip who felt that the practice was abhorrent

    • The difference has nothing to do with ‘British’ or ‘American’ English. It’s a French word, and the difference arose from differences in Northern or Norman French and that spoken in the south (Parisian French). The Norman ended up with a ‘G’, the Parisian with a ‘J’, and it’s the Parisian variant that survives today, with the ‘G’ version deemed ‘archaic’ and surviving only through statutory and official tradition. People have been arguing about which word to use since at least 1668.

      All the people above and below banging on about ‘original English’, ‘British English’, and especially those whining about ‘Yanks’ murdering their beloved language – get your heads out of your arses and buy a decent dictionary.

  4. Gaol is the original UK English word. Due to poor education many words were commonly misspelled centuries back. There were various local written dialects based on phonetic pronunciation. Many of these travelled over to the US. It is my understanding that over the years in the US the spelling Jail became the favoured spelling. In time this influenced the UK where both spellings were common for centuries. Leading to the current situation today, where 99% of Brits would opt for the spelling jail rather than gaol. The spelling gaol being reserved only for gaols which have that spelling in their names due to their age. Even in British academia, you would be seen as old-fashioned and out of date for using the old spelling gaol.

    • Gaol is not the “original” UK English word, as the word in both its g- and j- forms come into Middle English (predating the United Kingdom by centuries) from Norman and Parisian French respectively.

      Poor education had less to do with the vagaries of regional spelling as much as a lack of any official standardization or nationwide orthographic “clean up” by the British government, as was done in other European countries. Incidentally, only the well-educated knew how to spell at all in a time when the masses were illiterate and far more illiterates remained in England than emigrated to America, so your theory of American spelling being influenced by the uneducated is a bit ridiculous.

      In fact, American spelling in particular was profoundly influenced by Noah Webster (of dictionary fame) who is the person responsible for altering the common 18th centruty British spellings of gaol, publick, masque, mould, colour, etc., into the more consistent jail, public, mask, mold, color. The “gaol” spelling (not to mention colour, flavour, etc.) persisted in Austrlia and Canada because because they kept the Royalty on their money.

      Incidentally if Webster had his way, women would be spelled (spelt if you prefer) “wimmen” which, actually, is much closer to the “original” Middle English.

      • gaol is the original UK spelling hence why Australians still use this. it has been the influence of american t.v as to why jail has become more predominant. much like mum and mom both are correct but Australia recognizes UK dialect

      • Thank goodness for an erudite reply.

        Webster is also responsible for the problems that American educated people have with places and surnames in the U.K. that they syllabalize. As I understand it, Webster included the way in which a word was pronounced by breaking it into it’s syllables.
        That is much closer to many other languages but in particular, Japanese who have just as much trouble with such places as Edinburgh, pronounced Edin bora or Worcestershire pronounced Wuss-tar-shar.

      • Majority of Aussies will spell it Wimmen anyway and while we are on the subject of Americans and their love of removing letters from British spelt words, Australia has 3 A’s not 2

    • George?

      I agree that in gaol, the sound is definitely a leading ‘j’ as opposed to a trailing ‘j’ as per these examples, but there’s a long list of ‘j-like’ pronounciations for G in english.

      • Er…which tend, as a very, very strongly-abided-by rule, to be followed by an e or an i. Generally, the Romance languages, and those parts that English inherited from Latin through French, follow this rule: e or i makes the preceding consonant different if it has two readings. All of the examples you cite exemplify this. Similarly, too, the post below concerning giraffe. It applies to c as well: “concern” has two instances of c, both of which are pronounced differently due to the vowel subsequent to them; c followed by a, o and u is a “k”; followed by e or i, it’s “s”. Even when we don’t pronounce the vowel, it’s true: ice, for instance. We get this directly from French, but Spanish and Italian also do this (my understanding of Portuguese is more limited)…though in Castilian Spanish, ce and ci are pronounced the and thi; in Italian they’re che and chi.

        • Portuguese follows exactly that rule for “g” and “c”:
          g followed by a, o and u is a “g”; followed by e or i, it’s “j”;
          c followed by a, o and u is a “k”; followed by e or i, it’s “s”.

          Following that rule, I suppose “gaol” should be pronounced
          “gay-ole” which is pretty close to the Portuguese “gaiola”, which translates to cage (usually a bird cage). But interesting enough, in Portuguese a large cage is a “jaula”, which has a pronounciation close to “jail”. Bay the way, both “gaiola” anda “jaula” have the same Latin origin: “caveola”, a diminutive of “cavea”.

  5. I have long been an opponent of simplified spelling and the simplified minds who are in favour of destroying the Queen’s English. Gaol it has always been and gaol it shall be, except of course to the Yanks

    • I am an American that agrees with you. I was stationed in the UK for 3 years and found that I was increasingly irritated with what my country had done with the language.

      • You should not be irritated Gareth, we English have strayed well away from many words that we used when settling in to North America. You still get a pitcher of beer, we now use jug. Who is to say who screwed anything up, You guys are keeping to the old words and good thing too, it all makes the language richer.

      • I didn’t say learn German – I said opponent of simplified spelling which is not the same as devolving to Saxon (old English) and desiring to live in the middle ages.

  6. When I lived in Scotland in the 1980’s, gaol was very much the preferred, daresay the only spelling. I expect one could find current examples in the Glasgow Herald, etc.

  7. “‘Perfect weather for a gaol break!” says the bellhop at my San Francisco hotel, squinting at the fog. ” From the Herald, Glasgow, Scotland, in an article “Travel: Alcatraz,” dated 23 March 2013. The Herald felt the need to translate the American bellhop’s use of jail to the Scottish gaol for its readers’ ease of reading.

    • Oh, but when the word is spoken aloud, it’s always transcribed as “gaol.” “Jail” is preferred written version. Ah, the idiosyncrasies of American English.

      • Be accurate, yes? “when the word is spoken aloud” it cannot be transcribed. You mean “when the word is written” I presume?

        • Yes. Of course words spoken aloud can be transcribed, as in court testimony. The purpose of the word is to describe situations where thoughts, speech or data are put into written or printed form. My comment was accurate, facetious and not terribly difficult to understand.

    • So you hate people because of something their ancestors did? Do you hate the French, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch? After all, they to were colonial powers. They pillaged, raped and killed men, women and children all over the world. They also sold Africans into slavery.
      The Mongols had a huge Empire who’s armies killed millions and probably raped as many. The Romans did this as well but would also have runaway slaves thrown into the arena to fight gladiators and wild animals to entertain the masses. So you must hate present day Mongols and Italians as well. And of course you hate Americans. The British Empire only created 13 states, they gained the rest by buying a state from the French and then committing Genocide by butchering Native American men women AND children, claiming the land from the dead and then moving white people from their original colonies/states into their new colony/state. They then killed many Mexicans to form New Mexico. Although they were called states and not colonies, it could easily be argued that these two are the same thing. As for slavery, they were the best in the world at it. They didn’t just buy slaves when their old slaves died. No, they let the biggest and strongest slaves have children only
      Do you hate all these people? I bet the answer is no. And if I’m right, then you’re just a xenophobic prat who is trying to rationalise his hatred towards the English.

      Also, at no point in Evil Englischer’s comment did he wonder why people hated the English. He says “I fail to see what hating Brits does for you” (“you” being the commenter Ausphexia). Meaning, what do you gain from hating Brits for what our ancestors did?

  8. In the early 1990’s, learning British English (as a second language) in school (2nd grade onwards), the teacher favored ‘gaol’ vs ‘jail’. But all US cartoons (when Cartoon Network had proper cartoons) I used to watch back in the day used ‘jail’. Like ‘colour’ as I’ve been taught and ‘color’ as I use it now. :)

  9. Gaol is like one of the many words in “American” English which is spelled phonetically as it was done so by people who were largely illiterate, colour is another pet peeve of mine being spelled color (which luckily my spell check marks as incorrect). Mind you it’s no different to people you read things like “ye oldie” instead of “the old”, given that’s not a y it’s a runic symbol for thorn to get the “th” sound. I wouldn’t call it American English as it’s international, I’d call dumbed down English and only slightly better than text and 1337 speak.

    • The poor old Americans getting it in the neck again, hey, they had the first proper dictionary in the early 19th century, many years before work began on the Oxford Dictionary in 1857. Until Noah Webster got to grips with it in 1828, we all made it up pretty well as we liked, determined by education and locality. English is a world language and has many wonderful variations, all the better for it as well.

  10. Gaol is the correct spelling in the English dictionary and around the Commonwealth. Illiterate Americans as usual have taken another word which posed a challenge for their droll moronic tones and rearranged it to suit them. Making up spelling of various words is just another way the English language gets lowered to an obsolescent or American was or spelling.

  11. George R.R. Martin evokes an antiquated tongue by using spellings like “gaolor” — as well as other obsolescent spellings like “nuncle” — in A Song of Ice and Fire.

  12. No doubt cos us Paddies & Micks’re and Sheilas’re too thick to cease using “Gaol”? :) Obviously in Penal Times/under British Rule we deported our crooks to Australia so this may very well be why both countries share its use most commonly? Tempted to say, from some media reports I’ve seen we’re still exporting our crooks to what, I think, was Van Diemens Land? This all said I am NOT talking about the single punch that got such widespread coverage. I don’t envy that family at all; really hope the guy who got hit recovers and the brother doesn’t get a custodial sentence but a suspended one with a deportation order immediately after in the interests of justice. Jailing him will do no-one any favours and will inflict further anguish on the family.

  13. Im not American so i won’t be destroying my language by following the yanks down the black hole they’re in. Why is everyone hell bent on making the whole world a little America. I had an argument with my daughters teacher 20 years ago when she was marked wrong for spelling colour our way. Please stop trying to take my heritage.
    Brenda. Proud aussie.

    • Eeeeesh. Arrogant Aussie, more like. And didn’t even have the sense to honor your own heritage by capitalizing “Aussie”, which I did, even though I am a horrid American.

  14. “Gaol” was still the spelling being taught in Australian schools a decade ago. Not sure about now. Also not sure about obsolescence.

    • I am an Aussie and I write the place of legal incarceration as gaol. One reason our written language is bending more toward Websters version rather than Oxford or Collins is simple.

      Folk don’t bother to change the language setting on their PC from American English ( default ) to British English.

      As time goes on this pervades as acceptable. I recently put in a piece of work at my University and was marked down because my spelling was British not American. The lecturer stood her ground .. and so did I. The department head reluctantly agreed with me. Not a good way to develop repore with academics.Even our referencing system has gone to Chicago Author note V.16

      • It’s “rapport,” not “repore.” but i’m sure you’ll try to attribute that to a “british” spelling as well, because your hatred of Americans blinds you of your own hypocrisy.

        • Huggacious, I think you should vet your reply, I know we live in the best place on earth and I’ve been to a few.
          Even Oz has a few colloquialisms such as Fair Dinkum which I tolerate but I haven’t heard Cobber for many years even though some US films (with those bloody awful Orstralian accents they think we have) still use it, Paul Hogan isn’t the epitome of most of us but we know Gomer Pyle is what to expect in every town we visit in the US outside New York (are there any other cities?).
          Bugger, I could go on but I’m busy, keep going Dentuso, we are enjoying your verbosity.

          • Last year I took my family to Disney World, and while having a break went to a bar there. The barman asked where I was from and I told him Australia.
            A Canadian sitting at the bar then made the comment, ‘ oh good someone to talk to who uses words of more than two syllables ‘ . As this was early in my stay I thought the comment somewhat odd , but as my stay increased I understood.
            I don’t dislike ‘ those from the USA , anymore than those people from anywhere else, and having been at sea for over 25 years have visited many countries, and all have traits that are different from those in Australia.
            Over the years I have found the English to be lazy, racist and gripped with an undeserved attitude of self importance
            The Japanese are individually generous and nice people, but as a race the most racist people I have ever encountered, and unable to make decisions incase they are wrong
            The populations of Asia ‘ with the exception of Singapore ‘ the most corrupt
            and those of the USA the dumbest in anything that happens outside the USA or their state, thus the simplified spelling of words.

          • Hey, McHaggis, you are dead set a paid up wanking member of the Bunyip Aristocracy, probably an illegal import from the Northern Hemisphere.
            I would venture to suggest that your sporran is hairless, your legs are bowed and your undergarments are non-existent.
            Dentuso, you are a bludger, a poofter and a dunce, and your ball playing skills are equal to those of a preying mantis. Embi could whup ya (token Yankism!!) with a blindfold on, wearing budgie smugglers and a giggle hat.
            Youse bastards’d bore a wombat out of its burrow or a kookaburra out of a gum tree, so go and get a woolly dingo pup fair upya!

          • He has probably included a Federal District and the one Incorporated Territory.
            Australia only has 6 States.

          • Correct 6 states and two territories

            They differ in a few ways. A state has a Premier . A Territory has a Chief Minister.

            For those not committed to google ( that is cheating )

            The States are
            Queensland ..quite big
            New South Wales ..fairly big
            Victoria.. not that big
            Tasmania.. an island not as big as Victoria
            South Australia ..quite big
            Western Australia.. very bloody big ..properly big

            Australian Capital Territory. Very small and bloody cold
            Northern Territory ..quite big and warmer than the ACT

            Most of the place is rocks and sand with people living on the green bits on the edge. The East coast is the most heavily populated part. If you drew a line from Adelaide to Brisbane you would account for a high% of the nations 22 million people. That area between the south of Queensland and down to Melbourne has the great dividing range that allow nice rivers and fertile plains and lovely weather. Much like the Appalachian does for the east coast of the USA. West of that is is a different place altogether. Rain that falls west of the Great Divide runs toward the great artesian basin and ultimately makes its way to the sea . The journey for this water can take years . The Barkly Tableland prevents it from running into the Gulf of Carpentaria

            The West Coast is vast.arid and lightly populated. There is a region known as “The South West Land Division” . It has hot dry summers and wet winters . The south coast of WA is absolutely stunning and anybody visiting here must see Esperance , Denmark and the areas around Walpole- is just …………

            Going north from Perth ( the Capital of WA) you quickly get into very remote country . As the weather here travels west to east the west coast bears the brunt of the big systems moving in from the Indian Ocean and is like another planet compared to the east coast.

            There are no real rivers north of Perth. Yeah a few “storm drains”. Around Greenough the trees are short and scrubby and grow sideways because of the constant winds.There is virtually no where to port a reasonable sized boat . It is a Mariners nightmare. we would be spaeking Dutch if the VOC had bothered to sail down the east coast.

            I used to live there . For more hundreds of kilometres I can remember the desert meets the sea with the desert spinifex existing within just a metre from mangroves .The fishing is pretty is amazing. 12 species in four hours out of a 12 footer.

            More later.. I gotta get cleaned up and chase skirt.

          • I know it only has 6 States and I live in one that still has the lesser known Southern Bunyip that is closely related to the Drop Bear, a tad smaller than the common Northern Bunyip but considerably more savage.
            Being protected they are not allowed to be hunted any longer but we have found some in haggis traps that we have out to try to get rid of those bothersome beasts that the early kilted settlers introduced.

  15. I have to say that I feel very archaic. I went to school in Birmingham, England and if we had spelt gaol as jail, we would have had a rap over the knuckles with a ruler.


Leave a Comment