Jail, gaol, goal
Posted: 26 March 2007 02:16 PM   [ Ignore ]
Total Posts:  2630
Joined  2007-01-30

I remember when I first came across the spelling goal for gaol in an 18th century text I felt sure it was a typo. Of course, it wasn’t, and I discovered that this form was very common at the time. The OED entry for the word reveals much of interest, including the fact that jail and gaol descend from Norman and Parisian French respectively, and speculation as to how the unlikely spelling of goal arose.

Forms: a. 3-4 gayhol(e, 5 gayll(e, gaille, 5-7 gayole, gayl(e, gaile, 6 gaiell, gaill, 6-7 gaole, goale, 7-8 goal, 7- gaol. b. 4 iaiole, 4-7 iaile, iayle, 5 iayll, 6-7 iaole, 7-8 jayl, (7 jale), 7- jail. c. 6 geyle, geayle, (gial), 7 geale. [ME. had two types, from Northern or Norman Fr., and Central or Parisian Fr. respectively: 1) ME. gay(h)ole, -ol, gayll(e, gaill(e, gayl(e, gaile, a. ONF. gaiole, gayolle, gaole (mod. Picard gayole, Walloon gaioule); 2) ME. jaiole, jayle, jaile, jayll, a. OF. jaiole, jaole, jeole, geole, cage, prison, F. geôle prison (Besançon javiole cage for fowls) = obs. It. gaiola, Sp. gayola (also, from F., jaula cage, cell), Pg. gaiola cage:-Romanic and pop.Lat. *gavi{omac}la (med.L. gabiola, 1229 in Brachet) for *caveola, dim. of cavea hollow, cavity, den, cage, coop: see CAGE. Of the two types, the Norman Fr. and ME. gaiole, gaole, came down to the 17th c. as gaile, and still remains as a written form in the archaic spelling gaol (chiefly due to statutory and official tradition); but this is obsolete in the spoken language, where the surviving word is jail, repr. Old Parisian Fr. and ME. jaiole, jaile. Hence though both forms gaol, jail, are still written, only the latter is spoken. In U.S. jail is the official spelling. It is difficult to say whether the form goal(e, common, alike in official and general use, from the 16th to the 18th c., was merely an erroneous spelling of gaol, after this had itself become an archaism, or was phonetic: cf. mod.F. geôle ({zh}ol).

BTW apparently gaol was pronounced with a hard g. (There’s no indication in the Pronunciation, which gives only the dzh- sound, but I can infer nothing else from the antepenultimate and penultimate sentences of the entry above). That’s a revelation to me.