Macquarie Dictionary


Jail vs Gaol

Both gaol and jail are borrowed from French. The first borrowing, gaol, came with the Norman Conquest when a lot of Norman French words to do with law and politics and governance were introduced into English. The second borrowing, jail, came about three centuries later from Parisian French. They ultimately are the same word – Old Northern French used the form gayol and Parisian French the form jaile.

Both forms existed in English but the form gaol was the one that had been taken on by British law. Of course the gaol spelling gives rise to the inevitable confusion between gaol and goal. Webster opted for jail as the most sensible spelling to adopt and, in time, others have come to see that he had a point.

The spelling gaol was the accepted spelling in Australian English until the 1990s, as evidenced by the change in the Third Edition of the Macquarie Dictionary (1997). Many style guides, particularly newspaper style guides, led the way in this. Indeed the spelling in British English is now jail with gaol as a lowly placed variant. The spelling jail is the most common spelling now in Australian English.

This leaves Berrima Gaol and Parramatta Gaol out on a limb. The solution for state governments has been to rename these institutions as correctional centres. But if we are talking about the historical prisons then we need to keep the historical spelling. So the new jail at Parramatta will require a re-opening of the old Parramatta Gaol and will be called the Parramatta Correctional Centre.

Eventually gaol will be a spelling of the past.

Want some help with other common confusables? Check out our other comparison blogs

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