In Southwark, between the Cathedral and the Globe Theatre runs Clink Street. It is in that dark and dingy alley that such that remains of the notorious prison, which is now rebuilt as a museum, is found.

Narrow, dark, and cobbled, it is well-known for the chase-scene in the David Lean film Oliver Twist. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clink_Street

Now the word 'clink' is widely used in Britain for prison. 'He did a year in clink', 'At this rate he will end up in clink' etc.

What I am unsure about, is whether 'clink' derives from onomatopoeia, the sound of metal doors closing, keys, chains and fetters etc. and in that way became an everyday term for prison. Does Clink Street take its name from the prison, or did prison become known as 'clink' because a notorious one (from the 12th to 18th centuries) was located in Clink Street.

It is not clear from the quotations in the OED.

  • For those whjo can't access it, the relevant definition in OED is: The name of a noted prison in Southwark; later used elsewhere (esp. in Devon and Cornwall) for a small and dismal prison or prison-cell, a lock-up. Now used generally for: prison, cells. – FumbleFingers Jan 13 '14 at 22:59
  • ...OED Etymology: The evidence appears to indicate that the name was proper to the Southwark ‘Clink’, and thence transferred elsewhere; but the converse may have been the fact. If the name was originally descriptive, various senses of clink , e.g. ‘to fasten securely’ (compare ‘to get the clinch’), might have given rise to it. Compare also clink = ‘key-hole’ – FumbleFingers Jan 13 '14 at 23:01
  • I think if OED can't offer a conclusive etymology it's a bit pointless asking us to give our opinions on which is the most likely. POB – FumbleFingers Jan 13 '14 at 23:03
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    @Fumble, I’d disagree it’s POB—the question itself seems perfectly valid. The fact that the OED have given up doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t someone out there who’s done an insane amount of research into exactly this and have more information than the OED. Quite likely no answer will be forthcoming, but that shouldn’t mean the question should be closed. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 13 '14 at 23:06
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    @FumbleFingers In fact, more than once, Hugo has written in his post that he has notified the OED! What of that question about the fox and its gekkering? KitFox actually contacted the guy who "created" that word. MacDonald, if memory serves me correctly. – Mari-Lou A Jan 13 '14 at 23:43

The Eric Partridge–edited third edition of Francis Grose, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1796, originally), has an interesting entry by Grose [and followup note by Partridge]:

CLINK. A place in the Borough of Southwark, formerly privileged from arrests; and inhabited by lawless vagabonds of every denomination, called, from the place of their residence, clinkers. Also, a gaol, from the clinking of the prisoners' chains or fetters: he is gone to clink. [The place was in Grose's day, as it had long been, the noted gaol: The Clink. Originally a sanctuary district: 'the liberty of the Clink' was, then, the sanctuary afforded by that district, By a play on liberty, clink came to mean the Clink gaol; thence the Clink became any gaol. ... While clink is probably connected with clinch, to clutch, etc., whence clinch also = a gaol, it is probable that the onomatopoeic associations may have helped to popularize clink as gaol.]

Grose, at least, seems to think that clink in the sense of "gaol" comes from the sound of clinking chains and not from the place in Southwark "formerly privileged from arrests."

For its part, Merriam-Webster, Webster's Word Histories (1989), seems fairly confident that clink in the sense of "prison" derives from the Southwark Clink:

clink ... [fr. Clink, a prison in Southwark, borough of London, England, prob. fr. Clink, a part of the Manor of Southwark]

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    This clearly merits a 'correct answer' acknowledgement, because I don't believe we will get any nearer. The onomatopoeic associations are deemed the 'probable' origins, and hence perhaps from where the street takes its name. Interesting about it originally having been a 'sanctuary district'. It is close to Southwark Cathedral. The present edifice dates from the 13th century but the religious history of the site dates from 606AD and the founding of a convent there. – WS2 58 mins ago – WS2 Jan 14 '14 at 9:22
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    The term liberty is in this sense liberty as it was under the authority of the Bishop of Winchester outside the jurisdiction of the City. Certain activities banned in the City were permitted (prostitution and bear-baiting for example). It's not connected with the "sanctuary" offered by churches, however even that was only a temporary measure not a way to escape punishment. – user24964 Jan 14 '14 at 12:23

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