‘Gaol’ or ‘jail’? I know which one I prefer…


A friend asked my opinion on the spelling of ‘gaol’ rather than ‘jail’. She said her teacher at school went ballistic if anyone spelt the word ‘jail’. Now we all know why this is. Because ‘gaol’ is the British spelling, and ‘jail’ is the American spelling. At least that’s how it used to be…

There’s usage, and there’s correctness

And they often cross over at some point. What was seen as ‘wrong’ or ‘not standard’, eventually – through usage – becomes acceptable. Some people call this language change. Some people call this ‘the degradation of the English language’. Some people just get annoyed about it.

Of course, there’s nothing you can do

Language is a medium of communication between people. If people care to express themselves in a certain way, and can make themselves understood, the word or expression has a reason for existing and being used.

Certain countries, like France and Spain, have ‘ academies’, organizations that attempt in some way to control the language, for example, not accepting English loan words, such as ‘computer’ and ‘software’ into their official dictionaries. English-speaking linguists tend to feel this doesn’t work too well. The Wikipedia article on the French Academy might give some insight into why. I recommend looking it up: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acad%C3%A9mie_fran%C3%A7aise

Google shows the way

In modern life, good old Google can show you how the use of words has changed by analysing their Google books over the last century in their giant banks of computers. Or however they do it.

This graph shows you that the ‘jail’ spelling is growing in popularity – even in books – in British English, beginning some time around the 1930s.


Anyone can check the relative frequency of a pair of words very easily. Just go to: https://books.google.com/ngrams and type the words into the query box, separated by a comma. Great fun.

So which spelling do I prefer?

‘Jail’, of course. Mainly because ‘gaol’ seems so old-fashioned, but also because of the confusion with the word ‘goal’. I know spelling and grammar correction software will correct me if I type ‘He was goaled for twenty years’, but hey, who needs that kind of niggling problem?

Answer: The Independent newspaper here in the UK, which seems to prefer the ‘gaol’ spelling, as seen in its review of the last episode of Game of Thrones:

Grey Worm … wants justice for his Queen, gaoling Tyrion and Jon and insisting they pay with their lives.

And what about ‘airplane’ and ‘aeroplane’?

Apparently, my friend’s teacher used to object violently to the ‘airplane’ spelling, which is again the US spelling. I too resented the unrelenting march of this US word into British English for many years, but now I’ve given in. ‘Aeroplane’ conjures up other rather out-of-date words, such as ‘aerodrome’, and 1920s flying aces in biplanes, wearing goggles.

There are other words, like ‘aerobatics’ and ‘aerodynamics’, where for some reason those are the standard spellings, even in the US. Go figure, as they say (in the US).

Here’s the Google NGrams graph comparing the two words in British books in Google Books over the last century:


This is slightly surprising, but you can see that ‘airplane’ started to gain ground over ‘aeroplane’, some time in the 1940s. Maybe something to do with the war?

I hope at least some of you will play with the Google NGrams viewer. It’s really easy to use. Let me know what you found out in the Comments section of the blog, if you have time – and the inclination!

2 thoughts on “‘Gaol’ or ‘jail’? I know which one I prefer…

  1. Go to jail! Move directly to jail. Do not pass “go”.Do not collect £200. These instructions and ‘Get out of jail free’ cards are how I learnt to spell jail from the Waddington’s game of monopoly as a child. It seemed right to me and I have stuck with it. Do tell me when it is appropriate to use “go” as Waddingtons have with the word “go” on their Community Chest card and when to use ‘go’. And by the way, have I got my apostrophes right with Waddingtons who are now the Tonka corporation.

    1. Interesting, Geoff. It’s been a long time since I played Monopoly, but I think the ‘jail’ spelling might be because the game originated in the US (Parker Bros, now part of Hasbro, according to Wikipedia}. Do you mean ‘Do not pass go’? – there’s a lot of confusion about what this means, and I’m afraid I cannot enlighten you, but there are several chat sites that include long discussions about it.

      Re apostrophes in company names and brands, there’s a lot of debate about this too. Waddingtons or Waddington’s – the founder of the company was John Waddington of Leeds, so either could be right. I think it’s mainly without the apostrophe. Waterstones has dropped the apostrophe from its shop fronts, but Sainsbury’s has kept its apostrophe. Some people think that dropping the apostrophe is a form of dumbing down, but personally I think its just a symptom of the general confusion about apostrophes!

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