What is the Hoosegow?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

At some point in almost every Western novel, at least one character seems to end up “in the hoosegow.” This colorful slang term is simply another word for “jail,” and appears to originate from the early 20th century. “The hoosegow” in reference to a jail is generally heard in the American West, and alternate slang terms for a jail or prison like the clink, the brig, the joint, the pokey, the slammer, and the big house can be heard in other regions of the world.

"Hoosegow" is an old American West slang word for jail.
"Hoosegow" is an old American West slang word for jail.

The etymology of “the hoosegow,” like many terms from the American West, is rooted in the Spanish language. The word is a corruption of juzgado, a Spanish word used to refer to a court or tribunal, derived from the Latin word judicare, which happens to be closely related to English words like “judge” and “justice.” The first documented instance of the hoosegow in print occurred in 1908, and the word may be even older.

Individuals may be thrown into the "hoosegow" for a number of crimes, including public drunkenness.
Individuals may be thrown into the "hoosegow" for a number of crimes, including public drunkenness.

As a general rule, this word is used specifically in reference to a jail, differentiating it from a prison. A prison is a facility which is designed for long-term confinement of prisoners, typically including amenities like a medical clinic and a library for the use of the prisoners. A jail, on the other hand, is much more spartan, providing the bare minimum required for a few days of confinement.

Someone can be thrown into the hoosegow for any number of crimes, ranging from public drunkenness to theft, and someone may be transferred from the hoosegow to a formal prison facility if he or she is convicted of a crime which requires long-term imprisonment. Typically, people remain in the hoosegow for only brief periods of time, such as the overnight stay commonly used to contain drunks, and they do not enter prison unless they are convicted of a crime. The exception to this rule is a prisoner on remand, who will be imprisoned while awaiting and undergoing trial.

Someone is typically released from the hoosegow when someone arrives to bail him or her out, although in some cases prisoners may simply be released in the morning once it is determined that they are no longer a threat, especially in rural communities. However, a stay in the hoosegow does wind up on one's permanent record, and the prisoner may be required to pay a fine or attend a court trial to resolve the issue which landed him or her in the hoosegow in the first place.

A Hoosegow is consider to be a less formal facility designed for short-term holding, unlike a prison.
A Hoosegow is consider to be a less formal facility designed for short-term holding, unlike a prison.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

anon117168

yes, loved this etymology. i had thought "hoosegow" might have come from a mispronunciation of house + gaol.

anon81097

very helpful.

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