Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
Ten days after the U.S. celebrates the Fourth of July, the French have their own independence celebration. La Fête Nationale Française, more commonly known outside France as Bastille Day, marks the storming of Paris’s Bastille prison on July 14, 1789.
The word Bastille is an Old French word meaning literally “fortress, tower” — a dull word history, I know, akin to answering the question “Why is it called the White House?” But it does point to the fact that the Bastille wasn’t built to be a prison. When it was constructed in the 1300s, during the Hundred Years’ War with England, it was intended to fortify and protect the eastern entrance to Paris.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, it was transformed into a place to hold prisoners and political dissidents, some of whom were locked away without trial simply by order of the king. (The polar opposite of a presidential pardon.) It was also a storage space for forbidden books. The place was massive and expensive to maintain, and during the early 1780s, there was talk of having it demolished.
When an angry crowd stormed the place in 1789, it held only seven prisoners. Nonetheless, it stood as a symbol of the excesses of the monarchy, and its fall marked the beginning of the French Revolution.
The Bastille was a prison in the 1700s, and that’s even what the French called it. Prison is a French word, an altered spelling (influenced by pris “taken”) of the much earlier preson, which comes from a shortening of the Latin prehensionem “a taking.” Prehensionem is a noun formed from a stem of the verb prehendere “to take,” which might look familiar to you.
Before criminals can be thrown in prison, they must be apprehended, a word that traces back to the same prehendere root. Also related: comprehensive, reprehensible, and prehensile — a prehensile tail is one that is capable of grabbing and taking something.
Many of our country’s largest prisons are called penitentiaries. When you notice that the word starts with penitent — a person who repents and begs forgiveness for their sins — you can probably deduce that the word has a link to the Catholic Church. The first penitentiaries, more than half a millennium ago, were places where people were punished for offenses against the Church. The word traces back to the Latin pænitentia “penitence.”
It wasn’t until the mid-18th century that penitentiary houses — and by around 1800 penitentiaries — were places where convicts were housed for punishment and reformation for breaking man’s law, not God’s.
Unexpectedly, the words penitentiary and penal are not etymologically related. The latter, as we trace its course through language into the far past, has always meant “relating to punishment.”
Jail and prison are often used interchangeably, but there are some technical differences between the two. A prison is an institution controlled (at least ostensibly) by state or federal government and that holds those convicted of serious crimes and given long sentences. A jail is locally run (by the county or city) and holds those convicted of minor offenses and given shorter sentences or those being detained while they await trial.
The Latin cavea means, among other things, “cage.” With the addition of a diminutive suffix, this became the Late Latin caveola (“a little cage”) and then the Medieval Latin gabiola. This became the Old French jaiole, but there was also the spelling variant gaiole in Old North French — the language familiar to the Normans, English’s first major source of French loan words. The g form was used in many Middle English legal documents, establishing a precedent and tradition that exists today: The common British form of the word is gaol, while in America we call it jail.
Regardless of spelling, they’re pronounced in the same way.
Involuntary confinement has been around for quite a while, so the language has had some time to develop a number of different names for where we toss the naughty. Here are a few more of them and where, to the best of our knowledge, the names originated:
- Dungeon: Usually depicted as dingy underground prisons and torture chambers today, the first dungeons were actually towers. The Latin dominus was the “master of the house” (from domus “house”), used to describe an actual person. This begat the Old French donjon “great tower of a castle,” probably from a figurative sense of the tower’s commanding presence over the rest of the place. Donjon still exists in English as the name — and spelling — of the large central tower in a medieval castle.
But at the base of many donjons was also an underground hold where prisoners were kept, and it was referred to with the same word — with a wide variety of spellings. Eventually, the spelling of that underground hold settled on
- Stockade: From the Spanish estaca “stake,” an estacada and the Anglicized stockade was a “barrier of stakes.” If you make such a barrier an enclosure and sharpen the tops of those stakes, it becomes a decent place to hold prisoners. Stockade as “a military prison” wasn’t recorded until the end of the U.S. Civil War.
- Brig: Short for brigantine, a brig is a square-rigged vessel with two masts. However, during the 18th and 19th centuries, retired brigs were often used as prison ships — so originally, when a sailor was incarcerated and sent to the brig, it meant he was sent to one of these retired ships. By the 1840s in America, brig had come to refer to a ship’s jail, regardless of what type of ship it was on.
- Clink: During the 1500s, intricate locks could be rather expensive and were not necessarily considered a good investment for constraining prisoners. Instead of using locks, long-term iron cuffs and chains were secured with more permanence: They were pounded together using a hammer. And when metal hammer meets iron chain, it makes a “clink” sound.
In Southwark, London — not terribly far from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre — a prison had been established on Clynke Street in the early 16th century. Whether the street was named for the clinking sound often heard from the prison there or it was just a coincidence is unclear; regardless, that prison came to be known as “The Clink,” and the nickname spread to other prisons from there.
- Pokey: I wish I had a brilliant story about how pokey came to mean “jail,” but etymologists aren’t sure why this bit of slang started showing up in the early 20th century. One theory is that it is a variation of pogie, a slang term for “poorhouse,” though where pogie came from is also a mystery.
- Hoosegow: The Spanish word juzgar means “to judge,” from which came the Mexican Spanish word juzgado “court, tribunal.” (Remember that the j in these words is pronounced like an h in Spanish.) When Americans in the Old West heard the word, they spelled it the way it sounded to them: hoosegow. Because the court and the jail were usually in the same building (and defendants were detained in the jail before trial), hoosegow came to prominence in the late-19th and early-20th centuries as a synonym jail.
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