April 24, 2013

Case File #013.04.24: HOOSEGOW

During the final quarter of the nineteenth century, many people came up from Mexico to work on farms and ranches in Texas and the American Southwest, and as you might suspect, these Spanish-speaking workers had a little bit of influence on the tongue of their English-speaking employers and coworkers. Not all of the Spanish words borrowed by the Americans came across unadulterated, however, and the English slang word hoosegow is a case in point. Like their American coworkers, Mexican ranch hands sometimes got a little rowdy on their time off and therefore ended up spending a day or two in jail and missing a little work, but when the Spanish-speaking jailbirds were later asked by employers to account for the absence, they would often say not that they'd been to jail but that they'd been to court. Instead of using the English word court, however, they used the Spanish word juzgado, and since the Spanish j is aspirated like the English h in hotel, the z is pronounced like an s, and the d is soft like the th in thousand, many nineteenth-century gringos thought the word sounded like hoosegow and, aware that the workers had been incarcerated, assumed it meant “jail.” Thus, by the turn of the century, hoosegow had become common American slang for jail. Incidentally, the original source of the Spanish noun juzgado is the Latin verb judicare, meaning “to judge,” which is also the source of the English word judge and related terms such as judgment and judicial.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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