Hoosegow. Slammer. Clink. Cooler. What’s up with all these synonyms for jail?
The word jail comes from a Medieval Latin word for cage which was born of an earlier Latin word for hollow place or cavity. The noun form of jail showed up in English in the 1300s through a dialect of Northern France. The verb form didn’t show until the 1600s.
The term cooler began to mean jail in 1884. Its source word, cooler, showed up only ten years earlier, meaning a vessel in which liquids or other things are set to cool.
Slammer appeared in 1952, from the idea of the jail door slamming shut. Its source, slam, probably came from a Scandinavian source, & appeared in English in the 1670s meaning a severe blow.
The word prison has been with us since the 1100s and came from Latin through Vulgar Latin & French. The original Latin term, prehensionem, meant a taking.
The verb clink has been with us since the early 1300s — it’s thought to be an imitative word — imitative of the sound made by links of chain abrading one another. Though Southwark London’s infamous prison, the Clynke on Clink Street, was commissioned in 1144, the noun use of clink didn’t get generalized to mean jail until the 1770s.
The Mexican/Spanish word juzgao, meaning tribunal or court, gave us the Englishword hoosegow in 1911. Juzgao is one of many offspring of the Latin word iudicare, which meant to judge.
Though joint didn’t officially mean jail until 1953, etymologists are pretty sure this meaning came from an older meaning of joint popular in the early 1400s, when joint meant building or establishment where shady activities take place.
In the 1700s the word brigantine was born to refer to two-masted schooners. Sailors quickly shortened the word to brig. About a century later, when many older brigs had been retired & deemed prison ships, the word brig took on new meaning.
Did any of these etymologies startle you? If so, please let me know in the comment section.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, Collins Dictionary, Wordnik, The Clink Prison, & Etymonline.
The Indo-European root that meant take or seize was ghend. It made its way into Latin as prendere, and made its way from there to many places. One of those places is the English language.
We find it in the word prey, which arrived in the 1300s originally meaning to plunder, pillage & ravage, all arguably forms of taking. Over the years prey has come to be both a noun & a verb. Its primary modern meanings are an animal hunted or taken for food & to seize food.
Latin for bird of prey was osprey, which showed up in English in the 1400s. Interestingly, Latin-speakers called the bird we now call an osprey an ossifrage, but somewhere on the way to English through Medieval Latin & Old French, the similarity of the two words confused things and the ossifrage became the osprey.
The word spree (meaning a drinking bout) appeared in English in 1804 from Scottish. Though its earlier source may have been the French word esprit, it more likely came from a Middle Irish word meaning takings or booty, which, as you’ve already guessed, came from the Latin word meaning take.
When we win something we take it home & call it a prize, & when we pry into someone’s life or physically pry something from its place, it’s another sort of taking, all from that same root.
When we take someone unawares we surprise that person. And when we take someone & lock him/her up that person becomes an imprisoned prisoner in a prison, all words that started out as a little word meaning take.
And a person involved in taking this for that is an entrepreneur, a word that appeared in English in 1828. Entrepreneur came from combining the Latin prefix entre- (between) with the Latin root prendere (to take or seize).
I’m hoping some of you will offer your take on all this in the comments section.
Big thanks to friend Aaron Keating, for suggesting this week’s topic, & thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam-Webster, Wordnik, Etymonline, Collins Dictionary, & the OED.
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.
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