Jail or Gaol .... which is one is it?

19th March 2023. Reading Time: 2 minutes General. 2636 page views. 0 comments.

Australians spell old prisons as Gaol. Modern prisons here in Australia are referred to now as Jail. Americans have always spelt it as Jail, now we do too, yet we spelt it as Gaol up until the 1990's. Here is the low down!

One of the things that a lot of my American friends seem to think is a bit strange, is when I refer to an old prison as a Gaol. "It’s Jail!!!they tell me. In fact in today’s modern society, for the most part, we now refer to new prisons as jail here in Australia. It even says so in the dictionary. So why is it that most of our historical prisons are considered to be Gaols here in Australia?

Where did the terms Gaol and Jail come from?

Dating back to the 13th century, there were actually 20 different variations of the word gaol. There were all of French origin. They even had Gayol and Jaile as some of these variations. They all mean the same thing: They refer to some type of prison or a form of imprisonment.

Why was it Jail in America and Gaol in Australia?

British law took on the spelling as gaol. It was a term that was easily confused with goal and Americans chose the jail version because it made more sense. 

We know that Australia, along with other nations are part of the British Commonwealth so of course get the same spelling as per British law. It is why we spell colour compared to color and realize compared to realise. Let me tell you, learning how to spell as an Australian child can be confusing when you are reading texts from other countries with slightly different spelling, especially when we consume so much American content. If you choose the wrong country on your spell check (there is usually a US or UK version) it can be very confusing. The internet spelling police love to point this out too!  (Just check my inbox!)

What has it now changed to jail? Why are old prisons still referred to as Gaol?

Macquarie Dictionary gives an easy explanation:

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.

Macquarie Dictionary

In short, to preserve our history, we refer to our historical locations by the names they had, and that includes the spelling of the word Gaol!




Photos: Old Melbourne Gaol taken by Sarah LLIFS

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