Q&A: Jail or Gaol – which is it?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're sentencing you to one Q&A about jail vs gaol…

Q: Hi AWC, my friend thinks “jail” is spelt “gaol”. What’s going on?
A: You’re having a disagreement with your friend. That’s what is going on.
Q: So who’s correct? Here in Australia I’ve seen both “gaol” and “jail” used. I’m worried about looking silly in public.
A: You may want to reconsider that outfit then.
Q: Oh haha. So, which is it?
A: Well, it’s not that simple. Both words have French origins – with “gaol” (like many French words) introduced after 1066 and “jail” not appearing until much later (1600s) – favoured by the Parisian French. They were both pronounced the same way.
Q: So, why didn’t one just dominate over the other?
A: Well, it sort of came to a head in the late 1700s and early 1800s, with a “choose your side” showdown. The USA had just become independent and it was busy star-spangled banning many of the old spellings in favour of less ambiguous options. It chose “jail”. In Britain and its newly settled colony, Australia, “gaol” held firm.
Q: Well I guess that word was rather apt for a place with so many convicts in it. Sentimental value perhaps?
A: Perhaps. Other places like Canada took until the early 1900s before it adopted the “jail” spelling (having the USA on your border can speed up the process). Meanwhile, Britain, Ireland and Australia resisted changing until later in the 20th century.
Q: My friend says she was taught to spell it “gaol” in the 1980s.
A: Yes, that’s about right. For many aged 40+, certain teachers would have drummed in the “gaol” spelling.
Q: But has that since changed?
A: In the past few decades, the rise of the internet and US-based spellcheck software has definitely sped up the process. Most publication styles have switched to “jail” now.
Q: What does the Macquarie Dictionary say?
A: Both are accepted – but “jail” is preferred. It admits that “in general, the spelling of this word has shifted in Australian English from gaol to jail”. However, it goes on to add that, “gaol remains fossilised in the names of jails, as Parramatta Gaol, and in some government usage”.
Q: Yes, I guess some of those stone walls would be expensive to redo…
A: So for actual places, as well as government or legal areas (who as we know, love sounding fancy by using the “ye olde” terms), it still has a presence. You’ll find these historic references in Britain and Ireland especially too.
Q: But nowadays, any new reference or generic noun, go with “jail”.
A: It’s a safer bet. Using “gaol” may even confuse American readers who think you’ve made a typo for “goal”.
Q: Yes, I don’t suppose they ever had to debate about whether Elvis should be singing “Gaolhouse Rock”.
A: True. The entire world has found a new place to dwell with this one.
Q: Isn’t that from Heartbreak Hotel? Actually, speaking of hotels, did early versions of Monopoly ever send you to “gaol”?
A: No, because the game was created in America (in 1935). Even when the British version was made, by all reports, it remained as “jail”.
Q: Okay, so to recap, my friend probably won’t stop spelling it “gaol” despite “jail” being more universal.
A: It’s more than likely that seeing “jail” makes her cringe. After all, “gaol” is how she learnt it, and remember, it’s not wrong. But if you don’t have a strong opinion, proceed directly to “JAIL” – and do not pass GO.
Q: I guess there is one way to stop us arguing about it.
A: What’s that then?
Q: We just use the word “prison” instead.
A: Great idea!

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