Hoosegow & Pokey

Lemme outta here.

Dear Word Detective:  Where did the words “hoos-cow” and “pokey” originate as slang for jail? — Siobhan Taaffe.

Oh boy, jail.  Also known as the slammer.  The tank. The big house.  The clink.  The joint.  The Graybar Hotel.  The cooler. Stir. Inside.  Gosh, you’d never guess that the US has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world, would you?  So it’s not very surprising that we have so many slang synonyms for “correctional institution.”  By the way, every time I hear the euphemism “correctional institution,” I picture a training school for proofreaders, which is ironic because I once worked with two proofreaders who were eventually dragged away by the FBI for insider trading.

Much as I like the spelling “hoos-cow” (“Hoos cow is that in the cafeteria?”), the standard form of the word is “hoosegow” (although there are more than a thousand Google hits for “hooscow,” so that may change).  “Hoosegow” is a souvenir of our close connection to Mexico, a modified form of the Mexican Spanish word “juzgado,” meaning “jail.”  The original meaning of “juzgado,” interestingly, was “tribunal” or “court,” and the word is derived from the Latin “judicare,” meaning “to judge” (and from which our “judge” and “judgment” also derive).  “Hoosegow” first arose in the the western US, probably in the 19th century, although the first occurrence of the word in print found so far is from 1908.

“Pokey” as slang for “jail” dates to early 20th century America and is actually a variant form of “pogey,” a 19th century English word for “poorhouse” or “welfare hotel.”  The roots of “pogey” are largely a mystery, but the word may be related to the adjective “poky,” an interesting word in itself.  The original sense of “poky,” in the 18th century, was, logically, “something that pokes,” i.e., projects or points out (as in a “poke bonnet,” a style of the day that featured a prominent brim).  In the 19th century, the word came to mean “cramped or confined,” as a small room might make a resident feel “poked at” by the walls.  Since jail cells are not known for their generous elbow room, this is probably the connection between “poky” (cramped) and “pokey” (jail).

“Poky” also acquired the meaning of “dull, narrow-minded and slow” here in the US, probably from that same sense of “cramped.”  “Poky” today is a useful little word that can be applied to anything from horses (“Plop, plop, plopity plop… The feet of Father Ready’s poky old saddle horse slowly ate upon the weary miles,” 1932) to computer programs (“HyperCard is quite poky when running on a standard 1-megabyte Mac Plus, even from a hard disk,” 1989).

9 comments on this post.
  1. Bruce A. Hughes:

    “Pokey”,as told to me when younger, refers to having to sit on slats that were either shaved to a point, or left flat, depending on your crime, with your feet protruding through the leg openings of a clamped shut yoke. The villagers would come by and either whack your feet or laugh at you. If your crime was sever enough, you would have to place you hands and head through another type of restraint and either stand on a flat or shaved to a point slat for a given time. This lead to numerous terms. ” Laughing stock”; having some one “watch your back” to keep from having untold menaces done there; and of course “Joe’s in the “Pokey today”, because your feet or head were poking through.

  2. crsimon:

    So “slowpoke” just reinforces the meaning of poky. I wonder what “poke” refers to in “cowpoke.” The proverbial poke in “a pig in a poke” refers to a closed sack, which certainly fits with “cramped” and “confined.” Perhaps cowpokes, since they herded cattle, making sure they were not lost or stolen, and brought them in from the range to market, kept them confined– as in the pokey.

  3. Micki:

    I grew up in the Detroit area and “hoosegow” is a fond memory from my rumrunner grandfather’s stash of strange old words. Fortunately, he did not wind up in the slammer, big house … up the river ….

  4. jack schrader:

    All of those suggestions for references to the Pokey may certainly explain the term to some but you left out the most obvious which is a place for many to keep their back to the wall,certainly a lot more simple then those hard to come by observations!!

  5. Michael Harris:

    I always took pokey to have connections to pig In a poke, (a poke being a type of bag, I believe), or derived from the French poquet, (pocket?) an had history thru that line.

  6. Danny Dixen:

    Hoosegow is a 19th century word. Coming from the Western Days of the United States. When are Rancher did the inventory on his cattle he would occasionally come up on a cow without a brand. The Rancher would place the cow in a small confined pen in the hold it there until it’s owner came into town to claim it. So when the Rancher Came Upon This Cow he would say who’s cow is that.

  7. alison pickering:

    Has anyone considered Hoosgow as related to “house” “jail” words from old dutch and english: huis gaol. That’s my folk etymology.

  8. Landon:

    A slow ‘poke’ is a cattle term. Imagine a 19th-century cattle drive with a whole bunch of horned/pokey steers. What do you call the stragglers? The slow pokes.

  9. Bikin Allan:

    When I was growing up in Old Towne Fairfax High School in Fairfax, VA I wanted to write my senior paper on a music subject. Even though the school boasted an orchestra during WWII, it had no books on music. So I was taken to the new public library in Fairfax. Again nary a book on music, however I’ll never forget how it was described as a converted Hoos-gow, across the street from the 19th cent. courthouse. Just converted cells for the stacks, with the iron bars removed! Luckily I had just learned to drive and was given permission to visit the Library of Congress downtown in Washington. Just the reference room alone blew my mind. One of the most beautiful buildings in the US.

Leave a comment