After using the word in an answer to a question here, I got to wondering about the etymology of the word hoosegow. I picked it up from my father (perhaps surprisingly, given that he was an german immigrant) but that didn't tell me much about where the word came from.

A search of etymonline.com turned up this explanation:

hoosegow (n.)
"jail," 1911, western U.S., probably from mispronunciation of Mexican Spanish juzgao "tribunal, court," from juzgar "to judge," used as a noun, from Latin judicare "to judge," which is related to judicem (see judge (n.)).

Oxford agrees, saying:



North American
A prison.

Early 20th century: via Latin American Spanish from Spanish juzgado ‘tribunal’, from Latin judicatum ‘something judged’, neuter past participle of judicare.

I got curious about the 1911 date specified by etymonline and turned to Google's ngrams. Their results seemed to match and I started looking at the early uses, including:

A Miscellany of American Poetry

Aprons of Silence
Carl Sandburg

I fixed up a padded cell and lugged it around.
I locked myself in and nobody knew it.
Only the keeper and the kept in the hoosegow
Knew it -- on the streets, in the postoffice,


Dialect Notes - Volume 5 - Page 113



hoosegaw, or hoosegow, n. (hods gaw).
A jail, or a prison. Slang.
'They chucked him in the hoosegow.'
Sp. juzgado > husgado > husgao > hoosegaw. Spanish American, then army usage, then general. Reported common also in middle western states.

But then I found this one from 1922:

Everybody's Magazine - Volume 46 - Page 44

By Sampson Raphaelson

"That's the old hoosegow -- a notorious place about five years ago. All sorts of booze parties."
"Let's stop there, Chuck, and sit on the soda water stand and read poetry."

It seems to me that the usage here is implying a saloon or similar establishment, rather than a jail. Is there another meaning to hoosegow that has been lost to time? Or is this simply a one-off misuse of the word?


There are some great (amazingly detailed and researched!) answers and comments and it was hard to pick one to accept -- I went with Sven's for finding the earliest usage, as well as pointing out that juzgado was used as well by English-speakers.

I think that MikeJRamsey56 and JEL have the best explanation -- an abandoned jail that was taken over and used for scandalous parties thereafter.

Thanks everyone!

  • 2
    Perhaps a jail which had been abandoned and later repurposed as a saloon. Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 20:39
  • Perhaps, but there's nothing to indicate that. The paragraph directly before the one I quoted (on the previous page) read: "At a crossroads straight ahead, clear against the moon, rose a two-story shack with a curious towerlike top. In front stood what once must have been a pop and soda-water stand. The whole place was quite evidently deserted." and then, later, "You don't think he picked me up at the hoosegow do you?" Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 20:49
  • 1
    I've only ever heard the term used in old TV westerns, along the lines of "They'll throw you in the hoosegow and throw away the key."
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 21:54
  • 1
    It sounds like a saloon or roadhouse, and perhaps the original author was making a mistake (or more charitably a play on words) because of the resemblance of hoosegow to hooch (booze).
    – Rache
    Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 4:39
  • 1
    The structure was an abandoned jail used after its abandonment for student drinking parties. After it became notorious for those drinking parties, and thus subject to scrutiny, the parties moved elsewhere.
    – JEL
    Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 7:23

4 Answers 4


As you might expect, the spelling of hoosegow was not well established during its early years of use in the United States, and several alternative spellings vied for a place in the lexicon. For example, from "The Coming City Election," in the Coconino [Arizona] Sun (April 8, 1910):

Tom [Wagner, candidate for city marshal] is a pioneer in Northern Arizona and a big-husky that would (111 the office plumb full to the brim. Bringing malefactors to the "hoozegow" in lots of four or five would lie an easy matter for him and he would do it with a smile.

The same newspaper used the same spelling hoozegow in subsequent articles on March 27, 1914 and November 27, 2014, so this first instance wasn't simply an inadvertent typo.

A year later we have this instance from "In Lowell Courts," in the Bisbee [Arizona] Daily Review (April 12, 1911):

John Hellon pleaded guilty to being drunk and disorderly and was committed to jail in lieu of a fine of six hard iron bones. Timotio Sanchez will also be at home to his friends in the casa of his friend Constanle Bailey for six days for Timotio was "busted." ... Walter Neimi, Peter Hanson and Victor Ritner received similar sentences but being "there" with the dinero, paid their fines and escaped the county hoosgaw. The Lowell jail has not been tenanted for a week and during that time was put through a strenuous course of house cleaning so that the prisoners find themselves in a veritable parlor.

But the earliest anglicization of juzgado that I've come across is from the Orange [Texas] Daily Tribune, which uses the capitalized spelling Hoosgow in separate stories three weeks apart in 1903. Here is the instance, from an item headed "In the Recorder's Court" (August 26, 1903):

Signor G. Fernantura refused to pay a hack hill, landed on the driver, landed Immediately thereafter in the Hoosgow and, upon his appearance before Recorder Nemits, was first ordered to pay the disputed bill and touched by the court for $12.70. He won't do it again.

And here is the second, from "Hose Wagon Caught a Thief" (September 14, 1903):

The police were notified, the negro lodged in the "Hoosgow," and the chickens were returned to their rightful owner.

That same spelling appears next in a story from the same Bisbee Daily Record that gave us hoosgaw in 1911. From an item under the general headline "Cochise County and Bisbee Suburbs" (July 14, 1907):

The local officers got busy last night and threw out the dragnet, and as a result the justice court this morning was a very busy place. W. H. Bush was the first up, he was fined $6, which he paid. The next were seven swarthy complexioned gentlemen from the land of manana, and they were fined $6 each, but being without the necessary mazuma were led back to the hoosgow, protesting their innocence.

Other pre-1910 occurrences of hoosgow pop up in newspapers from New Mexico and Colorado. From an untitled item in the Tucumcari [New Mexico] News and Tucumcari Times (August 24, 1907):

Tucumcari is getting to be a town where the hobo has troubles of his own. A few nights ago Sheriff Street and the City Marshal put a quartette of confidencers into the the hoosgow and the next morning they were brought before the police court and fined $10 and the trimmings and told to hike for tall timber. The birds have flown. We would like to see the good work go on until the city is purged of this sort of varmints.

And from "Mike Keefe Gets Jail Sentence," in the Ouray [Colorado] Herald (June 12, 1908):

Mike Keefe, a well known local character, was up in police court, before acting Police Magistrate Julian Hulaniski, Thursday, charged with vagrancy. It seems that Keefe has been living with a woman of the underworld for some time, claiming her as his wife by common law marriage. He was assessed a fine of $100 and costs which he was not able to pay and a mittamus was issued and he is now in jail serving out his time . He will probably be allowed to leave town in a short time. While in the "hoosgow" he wanted company, he said, and wanted to swear out a warrant for another fellow for much the same offense. He is still alone.

The first occurrence of the word in an Eastern newspaper was in "Senor Battery Dan: Uses the Castilian Speech Only When He Finds English Inadequate" in the [New York] Sun (September 19, 1909):

"Police as a rule are not endowed with any 'savvy.' Twenty out of every twenty-five men who are put in the 'hoozgow' are truck drivers who are treated as criminals because a horse's head has been turned the wrong way.

The first Elephind match for hoosegow is from an untitled item in the Creede [Colorado] Candle (July 29, 1911):

Editor Harry Baker of the Creede Candle came over from Creede horseback Saturday, returning home Tuesday. The fact that the manager of this paper was off duty as marshall accounts for the fact that Baker did not spend most of his time here in the calaboose on a diet of poor bread and thin water. His conduct was scandalous.—Lake City Times. Isn't Kinney a peach? If the bread had been as poor and the water as thin as Kinney himself, we would have had a tough time had we lit in the hoosegow.

That all of these spellings began as attempts to anglicize the Spanish word juzgado is clear from the occurrence of the Spanish word itself in earlier articles in U.S. publications. One such instance appears in "A Bad Mexican" the El Paso [Texas] Herald (January 25, 1901):

A poor Mexican woman was unmercifully beaten with a stick by a man who was under the influence of mezcal in Monterey [Mexico]. The officers have been unable to locate the guilty party but are on his trail and expect to lodge the criminal in the comfortable quarters of the juzgado before long. The woman is horribly beaten and is not expected to live.

This example indicates that in at least one U.S. city on the U.S.–Mexico border, an anglophone newspaper editor expected his readers to recognize and understand the Spanish word juzgado in the midst of an English-language news story.


According to Vocabulario Vaquero/Cowboy Talk: A Dictionary of Spanish Terms.. hoosegow has also the dialectal meaning of:

( Western Montana, Western Wyoming -1931) An outhouse, a restroom:

As explained in World Wide Words the Mexican term juzagao from which hoosegow derives meant tribunal, courthouse. It came to mean jail as the two places were often in the same building:

  • It’s a fine old American slang term for a jail, still widely known today. Most people would connect it with the nineteenth-century cowboys of the Wild West.

  • It’s very likely that they knew the word, but it didn’t start to be written down until the early twentieth century. The first known example was penned by Harry Fisher, better known as Bud, in one of his early Mutt & Jeff cartoons, of 1908: “Mutt ... may be released from the hooze gow.”

  • The word is from Mexican Spanish juzgao, a jail, which came from juzgado for a tribunal or courtroom. It shifted to mean a jail because the two were often in the same building (and the path from the one to the other was often swift and certain). In sense and language origin it’s a relative of calaboose, which is also a prison (from calabozo, a dungeon, via the French of Louisiana).

  • Hoosegow is now the standard spelling, though in its early days it was written half a dozen different ways. We link it in our minds with cowboys largely because so much of their lingo was taken from Spanish and then mangled to fit English ideas of the way to say it. That included buckaroo (Spanish vaquero), bronco (from a word that meant rough or rude), lasso (lazo), lariat (la reata), chaps (chaparreras), hackamore bridles (jáquima), mustang (mesteña), cinch (cincha), as well as the direct borrowings of corral and rodeo.

  • No doubt about it: juzgado=hoosegow; disappear=Vamoose, from vamos, Spanish for we go or let's go. But please note the Spanish word is not just Mexican Spanish. It's any Spanish.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 15:59

Green's Dictionary of Slang gives three senses of HOOSEGOW -- 1. a prison (from 1908); 2. any form of institution to which inmates are sent rather than volunteer for entrance (from 1924); 3. an outhouse, a privy (from 1931). The "saloon" sense would seem to be an outlier, and I'd be dubious that it had any extended currency.


When I was a child (now in my mid-fifties), I remember my father explaining that “hoosegow” was actually “whose cow”, as it was the place the sherif took the cattle thieves of the old western films, to determine who had legal ownership. In other words the courthouse/jail.

He had a way of knowing the answer to every question...😉

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