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I know both words share the same meaning and pronunciation, but I wonder about their comparative usage in modern English.

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2 Answers

Google Ngram Viewer (for the "British English" corpus) shows that gaol was more popular than jail until the mid-19th century, that the two words were used with broadly similar frequency from then until the mid-20th century, and that now jail is the most common spelling.

However, if you look at the actual citations you'll see that recent uses of gaol are largely in historical contexts (for example, historical studies of gaol records, or reprints of works like The Ballad of Reading Gaol) so that Ngram Viewer underestimates the modern dominance of jail.

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+1 for making the point that even such recent citations as do exist would mainly be historical references anyway. You'd virtually never rarely see "gaol" in a newspaper today, for example. –  FumbleFingers Jan 19 '13 at 22:53
It's worth adding, that some prisons in Britain and Ireland have "gaol" in their name, and if they are not still in use, are much more likely to be called by that name than re-spelling it to jail. Kilmainham Gaol for example, would almost never be called "Kilmainham Jail". Those in current use are mostly renamed by the British or Irish government though. Reading Gaol, as mentioned in the answer is now HM Prison Reading, while as an Irish example Mountjoy Gaol is now Mountjoy Prison. –  Jon Hanna Jan 19 '13 at 23:24
Actually, for that matter, it's perhaps worth pointing out that the distinction between "prison" and "jail" that exists in the US doesn't in the UK (and nor in Ireland), where the words were once used more of less synonymously, and now prison is the only term used officially. –  Jon Hanna Jan 19 '13 at 23:34
@tchrist I could be wrong of course, but I suspect that's another Fry-ism. People remanded in custody are put in the same places, which officially are called prisons. Jail and gaol are indeed still used in unofficial speech for prisons, and sometimes also for police custody. There's a tendency to use jail more often for remand prisoners, but there's no consensus. Historically, jail/goal was used, but then it definitely included prisons, and sometimes debtors' prison. The above is true for Ireland too, except with the term "garda custody" instead of "police custody". –  Jon Hanna Jan 20 '13 at 2:23
The British National Corpus shows a preference in contemporary British English for jail by nearly 5 to 1. Treat with suspicion anything that Stephen Fry says about language. Better still, ignore it. The OED defines jail/gaol as 'a place or building for the confinement of persons accused or convicted of a crime or offence; a prison.' –  Barrie England Jan 20 '13 at 8:44
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British don't really use the word jail, jailed for 20 years can be used in text or news paper but to be sent to jail is a rare thing to say in the UK

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