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).

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