Lemme outta here. Dear Word Detective:P Where did the words hoos-cow and pokey originate as slang for jail? Siobhan Taaffe. Oh boy, jail. P Also known as the slammer. P The tank. The big house. P The clink. P The joint. P The Graybar Hotel. P The cooler. Stir. Inside. P Gosh, you d never guess that the US has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world, would you? P So it s not very surprising that we have so many slang synonyms for correctional institution. P By the way, every time I hear the euphemism correctional institution, I picture a training school for proofreaders, which is ironic because I once worked with two proofreaders who were eventually dragged away by the FBI for insider trading. Much as I like the spelling hoos-cow ( Hoos cow is that in the cafeteria? ), the standard form of the word is hoosegow (although there are more than a thousand Google hits for hooscow, so that may change). P Hoosegow is a souvenir of our close connection to Mexico, a modified form of the Mexican Spanish word juzgado, meaning jail. P The original meaning of juzgado, interestingly, was tribunal or court, and the word is derived from the Latin judicare, meaning to judge (and from which our judge and judgment also derive). P Hoosegow first arose in the the western US, probably in the 19th century, although the first occurrence of the word in print found so far is from 1908. Pokey as slang for jail dates to early 20th century America and is actually a variant form of pogey, a 19th century English word for poorhouse or welfare hotel.
P The roots of pogey are largely a mystery, but the word may be related to the adjective poky, an interesting word in itself. P The original sense of poky, in the 18th century, was, logically, something that pokes, i. e. , projects or points out (as in a poke bonnet, a style of the day that featured a prominent brim). P In the 19th century, the word came to mean cramped or confined, as a small room might make a resident feel poked at by the walls. P Since jail cells are not known for their generous elbow room, this is probably the connection between poky (cramped) and pokey (jail). Poky also acquired the meaning of dull, narrow-minded and slow here in the US, probably from that same sense of cramped. P Poky today is a useful little word that can be applied to anything from horses ( Plop, plop, plopity plop The feet of Father Ready s poky old saddle horse slowly ate upon the weary miles, 1932) to computer programs ( HyperCard is quite poky when running on a standard 1-megabyte Mac Plus, even from a hard disk, 1989).
Talk about serving time! Jail, prison, and penitentiary have been the English languageБs words for a place of incarceration since the days of Geoffrey Chaucer, who penned his immortal poems from 1357 to c. 1390. (ChaucerБs spelling of jail as gaol servedб 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. б Penitentiary is one form ofб penitent, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary б (OED) as БOne who repents with serious purpose to amend a sin or wrongdoingБ; related words include penitence and repentance.
Following are colloquial terms for those buildings or complexes that are at once forbidding and rather reassuring. Before slavery was abolished, slaves on Antebellum plantations called the ownerБs home Бthe big house,Б and housework was far preferable to cotton-picking or other field work. Inб 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 blacksБ view that forced domestic work is plantation houses had been every bit as oppressive as labor in sun-scorched fields. This word for a local jail emerged in New Orleans in the late 1700s and derives from calabozo, б Spanish for Бdungeon. Б When Harriet Beecher Stowe made it her word of choice for jail in the 1852 novel б Uncle TomБs Cabin (БSend them to the calaboose to be floggedБ БOne day I was out walking and passed the calaboose Б) the word quickly gained currency. Its use began to decline in the 1920s, butб calaboose occasionally finds its way into modern-day print and speech. 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 Б50s, and remains in use today. 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? Theб San Francisco Chronicle, in 1908. The same year, Fisher spelledб juzgao (the Mexican Spanish word for jail )б as Бhooze gowБ and put it JeffБs mouth with БMutt may be released from the hooze gowБ Б 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. Eytymologists arenБt sure why the p okey came to mean БjailБ (Merriam-WebsterБs assigns it an origin uknown ), but a clue comes from one of the OEDБsб definitions of the word, sans the e: Б poky (adj. ) : petty in size or accommodation; affording scanty room to stir; confined, mean, shabby. Б And if that doesnБt 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. 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 Бcorrectional facility. Б 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 б is fromб Sinck Sint, б the Mohican name for the site), which first opened its doors (and slammed them shut) in 1828 Б and theб expression Бsent up the riverБ soon became shorthand for Бsent to prison. Б б Its useб peaked around 1900 and tapered off thereafter, but this colloquialism has yet to find itself on death row. is defined as the name of a thing or action by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it. Б In this instance, think of the clink made by a jail cell door or a tin cup run across the bars. entered the language a century ago and still hangs on to describe two people with aб noteworthyб difference in height. Example: БIБd be more inclined to flirt with that tall drink oБ water named Angie if she and I weren t so Mutt and Jeff. Б And thanks to the Internet, the comic strip itself can still be enjoyed. (To see for yourself,.