Jail or Gaol – What’s the Difference?

As language evolves, some words drop out of common usage or change with the language. This could result in spelling changes, usage changes, or replacement with an entirely new word. This is a frequent occurrence for all modern languages, English included.

That is the case with the word gaol, which was common in earlier centuries, but is used only rarely today. It was eclipsed by jail, which is the same word spelled a different way.

Are there any other differences between these two word variants? Continue reading to find the answer.

What is the Difference Between Jail and Gaol?

In this article, I will compare jail vs. gaol. I will use each term in an example sentence, and I will also show you how to use a mnemonic to decide whether you should choose jail or gaol for your own writing.

When to Use Jail

Define gaol and define jailWhat does jail mean? A jail is a facility for housing criminals. The word jail is a noun in this sense, but it can be also used as a verb, where it means to incarcerate someone.

Here are a few examples,

  • The city’s proposal to build a new jail near a wealthy suburb was met with fierce resistance.
  • “If you break the law, you will be sent to jail,” Andrea reminded her boyfriend.
  • After arresting the drunks for public indecency, law enforcement officials jailed them overnight.
  • The elder Mr. Lee was convicted of bribery and tax evasion twice but never spent a day in jail. –The New York Times

When to Use Gaol

What does gaol mean? Gaol is an alternative spelling of jail, and it means the same thing. Historically, gaol was predominant in British English until roughly 1935, at which point jail became the more popular option. See the chart below for an illustration.

jail versus gaol meaning

Even though this chart provides a clear illustration of a long-term trend, it is not scientific. It only looks at books written in English since 1800. The next chart is the same way, but it shows that jail has been more common in American English except for a brief period in the early 19th century.

Definition of gaol definition and definition of jail definition

Some British publications still use gaol, especially when referring to the proper names of a specific jail.

For example,

  • But a donation drive at Crumlin Road Gaol has collected the real blood of 200 local TV and film extras. –BBC News

Trick to Remember the Difference

Jail gaolHere is a helpful trick to remember gaol vs. jail.

If you were writing for an American audience in 1815, or a British audience before 1935, you could get away with using gaol. Nowadays, however, jail is the accepted form in both of these language communities.

Since gaol is the older form, and the words old and outdated both begin with that letter, you should have little trouble remembering that gaol is the older, outdated variant of this word.


Is it gaol or jail? Jail and gaol and two spelling variants of a word that can be a noun or a verb. As a noun, it means a place to house criminals, and as a verb, it means to incarcerate someone.

  • Jail is the modern spelling.
  • Gaol is an outdated spelling that is rarely used.

Both forms have been used over the past few centuries, but today, only jail is commonplace. Since gaol has an O in it, like the words old and outdated, you can use the word’s spelling as a reminder that it is no longer current.

Remember, if you have any further questions, you can always check this site for the answers. If you ever get hung up choosing gaol or jail, check back with this article for help.