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

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. Confused? Me too.
Sarah Chumacero
26th August 2018.
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One of 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 ‘Gaol’s 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. 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 would catch up eventually!
We know that Australia, along with other nations are part of the British commonwealth. It makes sense that we of course get the same ‘spelling’. It is why we spell colour compared to color and realize compared to realise. Let me tell you, learning how to spell can be confusing when you are reading texts from other countries with slightly different spelling. 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!

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.

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