Most of the online dictionaries give this kind of alternate meaning of jug:

Slang. jail; prison.

When I was in grammar school it's what we called detention: "If you talk back to the teacher, she's going to send you to the Jug."

Collins says the origin of the main meaning as a narrow-necked container is

[C16: probably from Jug, nickname from girl's name Joan]

and Etymonline goes on to say the origin (of the name of the receptacle) is unknown:

Perhaps it is from jug "a low woman, a maidservant" (mid-16c.), a familiar alteration of Jug, a common personal name such as Joan or Judith.

Not sure what to do with that information.

The OED's first instance of jug meaning a prison occurs under "Stone-Jug" where, in 1796, in Grose's Dictionary Vulgar T, "Stone-Jug" refers to "Newgate, or any other prison." Under "jug" itself, the OED cites an 1861 poem in which the narrator was sentenced to "ten years in the Jug." (There is an earlier reference, from 1834, but the example given feels more tangential to me.)

Now, the relation between a prison and a container of any kind must be fairly obvious. But if the earliest reference to this relationship is itself in a dictionary, the term must have been in use in that capacity well before that. I'm curious to know whether there is any more substantial evidence of an actual usage underscoring that relationship. I'm also curious to know how the usage survived and was transported from 18th century Newgate prison to the detention room of an American parochial grammar school in the 20th century, especially since I don't recall ever hearing "the Jug" as a reference to any American prison.

  • 1
    @DecapitatedSoul The Spanish suggestion is tempting but the pronunciation is completely different which makes me think that it's a less likely source. The 'j' in 'juzgado' is rather like an 'h' in English so 'juzgado' would sound something like 'huthgado'. This sounds more like an origin for the American word 'hoosegow' to me.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Aug 4, 2020 at 0:59
  • 2
    Jesuit high schools call detention jug, which is sometimes said to stand for "justice under God". Interestingly, two links online attribute the origin to the Greek zugon, a yoke, or the Latin juugun, to be burdened. Mentioning this because it hasn't been noted (or debunked) in the answers so far. Commented Aug 4, 2020 at 21:08
  • @Robusto Thanks for asking this very interesting question. I remember you having mentioned hereabouts sometime back that you've studied rhetoric (if I can recall correctly),and so could you please suggest some useful and authoritative texts on the same. I'm asking from the point of view of an aspiring writer. Also,I know you're into chess and so would be grateful if you could recommend a few superlative chess books as well. Thank you.
    – user405662
    Commented Dec 28, 2021 at 17:01
  • 1
    @user405662 This isn't really the place for such a discussion. Come to ELU chat sometime when I'm there and we'll talk about it.
    – Robusto
    Commented Dec 28, 2021 at 17:48
  • @Robusto Sure. I would love to. :)
    – user405662
    Commented Dec 28, 2021 at 17:50

3 Answers 3


'Jug' as 'jail' in the U.S.

The earliest mention of jug in the sense "jail or prison" in a U.S. slang dictionary appears in John Bartlett, Dictionary of Americanisms, fourth edition (1877):

Jug. A jail. 1. To be in jug, or in the stone jug, is to be in jail. [Citation (from James Russell Lowell, "Biglow Papers" (1846–1848:] So arter they sentenced me, to make all tight and snug, / Afore a reg'lar court o' law, to ten years in the Jug. 2. In American Thief slang, jug signifies a Bank. 3. To jug money, &c., to hide it away.

John Farmer, Americanisms New and Old (1889) has this entry:

Jug (Cant).—This word, which, in England, stands for a prison of any kind, in America represents a bank; while to jug money is to hide it, possibly in the nearest approach to banking known to the majority of thieves.—JUG-BREAKING.—To commit a burglary at a bank.

That U.S. English speakers were using jug to mean jail from a fairly early date is suggested by this item in the Rising Sun [Indiana] Times (January 3, 1835):

"DON'T BRING HIM BACK!—A chap by the name of William B. Tucker, lately absconded from Vistula, leaving some of the good people of that place considerably in the vocative. He owed us something, say ten or twelve dollars, which we will give him if he will keep away. The crittur owes us for a handbill which he took from the office on the day of his exit. Oh Mr. Tucker, Mr. Tucker! come back and we will tuck you in the Jug.

And from an untitled item in the Indiana American (June 1, 1838), reprinted from the Louisville [Kentucky] Enquirer:

A man named Squires, at Rochester, New York, lately murdered his wife, by shooting her with a pistol. The fellow was nabbed, and placed in the jug.—Lou. Enqr.

J.E. Lighter, The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1997) points to an instance of jug in the sense of "jail or prison" from 1815–1816, which Craigie & Hulbert, A Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles (1936–1944) had cited more than 75 years ago:

jug1 n. 1.a. a jail; or prison; lockup; (Mil[itary]) a guardhouse.—usu. constr[ued] with the. [Three earliest cited occurrences:] 1815–16 in DAE: A full grown villain, who with an accomplice, were...safely lodged in the jug. 1848 Life in Rochester 87: "Money or the jug: cash, or the Blue Eagle," them's her terms. 1847–49 Bonney Banditti 110: If John had been timid...Bundy would now be in the jug.

Lighter's first example evidently originated in the Providence [Rhode Island] Patriot (January 7, 1815), reprinted in Supplement to Niles' Register—Scraps (1815–1816):

Thief catching—We have seen a recipe—how to cook a dolphin—which commences with—catch him first.—The following is an illustration.

One night last week, the Blackstone Company's store in this town was broken open, and a valuable piece of gingham stolen. A few days after, it was discovered concealed under some boards on a wharf. Tuesday night last being very dark, the gingham was replaced, and man set to watch in a store hard by, who fearing the game might escape, attached a cord to the gingham, the other end of which he took with him into the store, and patiently waited the event. He had hardly seated himself ere he felt a nibbling, and very soon a full bite, when, rushing from his concealment, he succeeded in securing a full grown villain, who, with an accomplice, were shortly after safely lodged in the jug.

'Jug' as a pillory in Scotland

An interesting example of "jug" as the name of a Scottish punishment appears in Frances Brown, "The Virginian: A Legend of Old Glasgow," in The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction (March 1847):

An ordinary offender would have been placed in the stocks on week-days and in the jug on Sundays; but in consideration of Jessie's youth, and her father's respectability, the week-day discipline was left to paternal judgement, and the sackcloth exercise limited to a seat on the cutty-stool, with a most lengthy rebuke from the presiding divine; whilst the Irish apprentice was condemned to three months residence in the Tolbooth, for grievously mauling the officers of the kirk and town, in vain endeavours to release from their grasp his unlucky companion.

In this story, "Virginian" refers to a resident of Virginia Street in Glasgow; the story is set in 1746.

Chambers Scots Dictionary (1911) has these entries for jougs and juggs:

Jougs, n. an instrument of punishment of the nature of the pillory, placed on the offender's neck.


Juggs, n. an iron collar on the neck of a criminal, which was fastened to a wall or post. Cf. Jougs.

A note explains the dagger before jougs as follows:

The † prefixed in the text indicates words apparently not of Scottish parentage but imported from abroad.

Chambers seems to be making a distinction between jougs and juggs: although both involving restraints fastened about the neck of a person to be punished, the former is equated to a pillory and the latter to a chained collar. Neither seems especially close in meaning to a jail or prison.

John Jamieson, An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808), however, indicates that the two words refer to essentially the same thing:

JUGGS, Jougs, Jogges, s. pl. An instrument of punishment of the same kind with the pillory ; the criminal being fastened to a wall or post, by an iron collar which surrounds his neck, S.

The term jougs (or jogges) goes back a long way in Scotland. A correspondent to Notes and Queries (September 29, 1855) the meaning of joggis in the following quotation found in "Glenn's History of Dumbarton":

1620, Julie 9. — The quhilk day Agnes Garnir, bein fund guiltie of sclandering her husband foolishlie, withoutt onie ground, awtt Jhone Crumone's dochtir, was ordaine it the neist Sabothe, un her awin seait, to crave God pardonne, for yer foresaid sclander, and paye ane penaltie of twa marks, or otherwayis to be put in ye joggis.

In response, the editor provided the following excerpt from "Maxwell's Burden of Issachar":

They punish delinquents, making them stand in jogges, as they call their pillories, which in country churches are fixedto the two sides of the maine door of the parish church, cutting the halfe of their haire, shaving their beards, &c.

Robert Brown, The History of Paisley, from the Roman Period Down to 1884 (1886) follows Jamieson in deriving the word from the Latin jugum ("yoke") and provides a sketch of the restraining device.

Also noteworthy is this somewhat ambiguous instance of jug in "Jack Whiskey: A Song," in The Anti-Jacobin Review; True Churchman's Magazine; and Protestant Advocate (March 1817):

Ye true-hearted Britons of Tamlaght O'Crilly, / Ye Christian Dissenters that meet in Kilrea, / Is there one man among you so base or so silly, / As to suffer Jack Whiskey to lead him astray? / For Jack's in the Jug, and his plans in disorder, / His lodgings unlet, and his friends all away; / With his pipe, and his mug, and his Ulster Recorder, / He looks thro' the jail bars in Derry to-day.

There seems to be a double entendre in the lyrics, as "Jack Whiskey" appears to be a historical person whom readers would recognize and, at another level, the personification of hard liquor. But while "whiskey's in the jug" can certainly be read literally, the fat that "Jack Whiskey" is said to be in a Derry jail suggests that jug might also be read as "jail or prison" here.

'Stone jug' as 'jail or prison' in England and the U.S.

Stone jug first appears in an English slang dictionary in Francis Grose, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1796):

STONE JUG. Newgate, or any other prison.


The same authority also lists stone doublet as a slang term for a prison. No such entry appears, however, in the 1785 or 1788 editions of Grose's Classical Dictionary. Both of these volumes identify only stone doublet as stone-based metaphor for prison.

Stone jug also appears as a variant name for Newgate prison in Frances Grose & Pierce Egan, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, revised edition (1823), although by that point stone pitcher seems to have become a somewhat more common alternative:

PITCHER. Newgate, in London, is called by various names ; as the pitcher, the stone pitcher, the start, and the stone jug, according to the humour of the speaker.

This new entry for pitcher is not Egan's invention, however. He seems to have lifted it verbatim from Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux, Written by Himself (1819).

An early instance of stone jug in a U.S.-published book appears in a translation of Frederick Schiller, The Robbers, printed in Select Plays, from Celebrated Authors; Performed at the Principal Theatres in the United States of America (Baltimore, 1802):

Schweizer. It was an excellent joke, to be sure. We were told, by our spies, yesterday that Roller [a robber] was safe in the stone jug, and that, unless the sky fell before this morning, he would inevitably go the way of all flesh.

The translator of this version of Schiller's play was Benjamin Thompson, an Englishman; nevertheless, the example does show that American audiences were exposed to the term stone jug from an early date.

Other instances of "stone jug" from before 1826 appear in British publicans and at least two other U.S. publications. From Thomas Dutton, The Captive Muse; A Collection of Fugitive Poems (London, 1814):

As, in the way to the military prison, you had to pass the bridge, which, as already stated, connected the grosse-tete with that part of the building occupied by the prisoners, from whom you were necessarily separated during the period of your incarceration, the grosse-tete was metaphorically denominated the country-house: Imprisonment there assumed the name of a country-trip, an the cachot bore the emphatic appellation of the stone-jug.

The author of this book was a prisoner of war in France and writes about his confinement there.

From Thomas Brown, London, or, A Month at Steven's (London, 1819):

"All the quality and fashion of town knows me," continued John Doe [a bailiff]; "and many a hearty fellow comes and treats me to a bottle who has been in my chambers, or in the stone jug. But, I say, settle that ere little action; it is but a milk score. What's a hundred or two to a gentleman? I'm the fairest young fellor as ever you see. There, I'll take Mr. M'Rorie's word for you if you like.

From "Memoirs of Mr. Hardy Vaux," in The London Magazine (January 1820):

It never can, we think, inspire a wish to dabble in the mysteries of clyfaking, buzzing, or clouting ; few indeed are the drummonds which it records ; rarely do we find the adepts in town, but generally, on the contrary, dwelling at Bushy-park ; and it happens, almost invariably, that, sooner or later, they are bowled-out. The crap is always before them ; they are often without a flesh-bag to their backs ; and for one instance of successful gamman, we hear of twenty of their only leaving the stone-jug, after a miserable residence in the salt-boxes, to be top'd in front of the debtor's door.

From anonymous, Memoirs of a Man of Fashion, Written by Himself (London, 1821):

From these companions I learned a great deal. The peer B. gave me a taste for theatricals; the Copper Colonel a turn for hoaxing and quizzing; and I had the honor of dining for the first time in the stone jug, alias a prison, with the other lord, now raised to the marquisite. His lordship at that "present writing was not worth a rap," but was heir to an immense property.

From J.K. Paulding, Koningsmarke, the Long Finne (New York, 1823):

The Long Finne accordingly entered the prison without that key which not only unlocks stone walls, but also the flinty hearts of those who are wont to preside within them. His pockets were as empty as a church on weekdays. ...

"Then thou gettest no breakfast here," cried the mistress of the stone jug, "except der teufel's braden. ...

From John Thurtell, "A History of the Gaming House, and Gamesters of the Metropolis" (London, 1824):

To the landlord, (one Want, formerly of Windsor,) he taught the art of doing the flats, cutting the boards right, and throwing up-hills, in exercising which species of knavery Want wanted a halter, but got of with slight incarceration in a neighbouring building ycleped the stone jug, i. e. Newgate. With the extinction of Want, who pined away, our honourable august black-leg found himself driven to mean shifts, to prevent the buttons of his waist- coat coming in contact with his backbone.

From Robert Coffin, The Life of the Boston Bard, Written by Himself (Mount Pleasant, New York, 1825):

We were nearly ready to haul out into the stream, when a "land shark" seized me by the shoulder and arm, told me I was his prisoner, and conducted me to jail!—My very kind landlady, it would seem, indulged a strong suspicion of my owing some four or five dollars to hr ladyship, and had employed the said land shark" to kidnap me previous to my contemplate voyage, as I might never return, and she would lose the debt. My residence in the “stone jug” was a night and a day ;—there was no taking benefit of the act, for there was no act for the debtor's relief ever passed by the en. lightened Legislature of Massachusetts.


The earliest example that I could find of the jug as "jail or prison" is from a Rhode Island newspaper at the beginning of 1815. Instances of "the stone jug" in the same sense arise in England by 1796, and become fairly frequent by the 1820 in England—but also at last occasionally in the United States as well. The similarity in age of the two expressions is noteworthy and, I suspect, not coincidental.

Much earlier instances of jougs, juggs, jogges, joggis, etc., occur in records from Scotland—but there the meaning is not "jail or prison" but "pillory or iron collar." The U.S. term may owe its existence to the Scottish term, but I am not at all sure that it didn't arise independently.

The key question whether the English stone jug—one of an array of late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century names for prison that also includes stone doublet, stone tavern, and stone pitcher—owes anything to the existence in Scotland from a much earlier date of "the jug"—a pillory. Although the connection isn't especially far-fetched, I tend to think that it is illusory.

If I had to commit to a theory—and I don't—I would favor the idea that "the stone jug" appeared as slang metaphor for prison in England in the late 1700s and that it was sometimes shortened to "the jug"—especially in the United States—within two or three decades.

  • Excellent! From the above I understand that jug derives from the Latin iugum = yoke: that the pillory is a yoke (then referred to as jougs, jogges, joggis) made of wood or iron and is a means of detaining and punishing a miscreant. Stone Jug represents jail the same means and purpose but is made of stone. The "stone" was then lost.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Feb 14, 2021 at 20:53

The possible Scottish origin, as suggested by The Phrase Finder is an interesting one, also in relation to a possible migration of the term from Scotland to the USA in the 18th century:

From : DSL - Dictionary of the Scots Language - Dictionar o the Scots Leid -

JOUGS, n.pl.1, v. Also jug(g)s, jugges; jowgs; jogs, jogg(e)s, jogues; gogs (Ork. 1709 A. W. Johnston Church in Ork. (1940) 99), guges; choucks (Per. 1845 Stat. Acc.2 X. 502). The form jag(g) (Sc. 1884 C. Rogers Soc. Life Scot. I. 354) is unhistorical. [dʒugz]

I. n. Reg. in pl. An instrument of punishment or public ignominy consisting of a hinged iron collar attached by a chain to a wall or post and locked round the neck of the offender. Freq. used as an ecclesiastical discipline in the early 18th c. Now only hist. or fig. Rarely in sing. (Sc. 1772 T. Pennant Tour 1769 142).

    • Bnff. 1712 W. Cramond Grant Court Bk. (1897) 20: John Roy to stand in the jogs on the Sabbath day at the kirk of Cromdale for scandalising of Janet Calder.
    • Ork. 1722 Ork. Miscellany II. 30: The Civil Magistrates ordered the Officer to take him to the Guges and they being put upon his shoulders to be put about his neck.
    • Hdg. 1781 J. Miller Lamp of Lothian (1844) 508: She was condemned to stand in the juggs, in terms of a sentence of the magistrates.

The explanation given by Phrases.org.uk also sounds plausible:

If you're in jug then you're in prison. Why "jug"? This comes from the Scottish Jougs which was a pillory or, more properly, an iron ring fastened to a wall and used as a pillory. The name in turn derived from the Old French Joug (yoke).

(There is also a suggestion that the Mexican-Spanish word juzgado (prison), simplified by early English speaking settlers to jug, was the source. The Scots origin seems to outdate the Mexican.)

Jug Military Prison.
General. Originally US. From 1815 (OED). Attested in numerous sources.
This was first used of a prison, but was adapted to mean a military prison in World War I. It was more fully ‘stone-jug’. Partridge suggests that it derives from the French ‘joug’, ‘a yoke’ from the Scots ‘joug(s)’, ‘a pillory’. [ANU]

According to Ayto, John The Oxford Dictionary Of Slang (1998) - Internet Archive:

(the) jug (1815) Orig US; short for obsolete slang stone-jug prison, often applied specifically to Newgate, former prison in the city of London.

  • Economist: Incarceration is incarceration; those in jug will care little whether they are said to have been punished or regulated (1987)

The earliest reference I found is from 1827 (Memoirs of Vidocq, Principal Agent of the French Police Until 1827, and Now Proprietor of the Paper Manufactory at St. Mandé - Google Books) but I'm not sure about it.

When, without any other form of process and only because it was the gracious pleasure for the police, they put into the stone jug (prison) the individuals reputed incorrigible robbers, ....

From 'Nix My Dolly Pals Fake Away!' by William Harrison Ainsworth, from Rookwood: A Romance (1834):

In a box (1) of the stone jug (2) I was born,
Of a hempen widow (3) the kid forlorn,
Fake away (4)

And thus was I bowled out at last (34),
And into the jug for a lag was cast (35);
Fake away.

Jack Flashman
By pierce egan in Captain Macheath:

Stanza V
Jack left the jug right mer-ri-ly, (12 prison)
And vent and black’d his doxy’s eye! (13 sweetheart)
Saying—look, marm, when next you split,
I’ll finish you with a rummy hit!
Fol, de, rol.

Bell’s Life in Sydney 12 May 3/4 (1855): He said he had just come out of ‘the jug;’ by ‘a jug,’ he meant either one of the banks or the gaol.

1861 Melbourne Punch ‘City Police Court’ 3 Oct. n.p.: Prisoner. A cakey-pannum-fencer, as ought to know better, peached on her, and she was nabbed by the sharping omee, and the queer-cuffen shut her up in the jug for a moll tooler.

[Green's dictionary of slang]

C.G. Leland ‘Breitmann at a Picnic’ in Hans Breitmann in Europe 283 (1871):

Dey all cot poonish difers vays,
Some vent to jug for dirty tays;
Und de von dat kilt de demperance man
Vas kit from de Alderman repriman.

A. Griffiths Fast and Loose III 225 (1885): Which way, now, I wonder! Not that; it leads back to the ‘jug’, I know

J.S. Wood Yale Yarns 71 (1895): Don’t put me into one o’ them jugs without no windys to ’em, will ye?

[Green's dictionary of slang]


A conviction is known as 'trouble'.
And a gaol is called a 'jug'
And a sharper is a 'spieler'
And a simpleton is a 'mug'

1906 New Boys’ World 29 Dec. 100: You are sure to go to the ‘big jug’ for a few years

You can find more evidence of its usage in Green's Dictionary of slang

Jug has also meant 'bank'. Here's another entry in A Dictionary of the Underworld: British and American:

Jug, n. perhaps orig. Newgate, as in 'Knights of the jug, Gentlemen of the Stove Pitcher', the Newgate Prison scene in W.T. Moncrieff's The Heart of London, 1830, and in 'And thus was I bowled out at last, And into the Jug for a lag was cast', Jerry Juniper's Chaunt in W.H. Ainsworth's Rookwood, 1834, but the term, meaning 'prison', was current in the U.S.A. in 1815 (D.A.E); 1839, G.W.M. Reynolds, Pickwick Abroad, ch. XXVI (any prison); 1842, P. Egan, Captain Macheath (id.); 1845, anon. translator of E. Sue's The mysteries of Paris, ch. XXIX; by 1850 thoroughly established in U.S.A. (E.Z.C. Judson, The mysteries of New York, 1851); 1857, Punch, Jan. 31; 1859, H; 1887, G.W. Walling (see cooler, 2) 1891, J.W. Sullivan (U.S.A.); 1904, Life in Sing Sing; by 1910, low s. in U.S.A. ; by 1880, it had > s. in England; it still is low s. everywhere, Abbr. stone jug, q.v.; there may be a remote connexion with Fr. joug, 'yoke'.--2. Hence, a prison cell: British and American: 1928, John O'Connor, Broadway Racketeers; 1932, Jack of Dartmoor, Dartmoor from within, 'The "jug", or punishment cells'; extant. --3. And by allusion to the similarity of structure, a bank: American: Nov. 11, 1845, The National Police Gazette, '"Cracking a jug" (entering a bank)' ; 1859, Matsell (at cut up), '"The jug was very fat..." (the bank was very rich)'; 1862, The Cornhill (vi, 648); 1877, Bartlett, Americanisms ; 1904, No.1500, Life in Sing Sing; 1912, A. H. Lewis.............

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