Angry NPR word policeman

Elise Hu is a reporter for NPR in their Seoul bureau. Like many reporters, she gets angry responses to stories from people who disagree with something or other but this one was a doozy where the person was simply outraged that she did not know the difference in meaning between two words that I suspect many of us (and this includes me) see as pretty much synonymous.

Why do people get so angry about such minor things? Surely the difference between jail and prison required at most a gentle email or call pointing out the difference, instead of insulting language implying illiteracy? For those who are curious, here is the difference between the two words.

Now something that the caller could get really upset about is how it came to be that the word ‘gaol’ came to not only mean the same thing as ‘jail’ but to be pronounced the same too.


  1. Robert B. says

    I always assumed that “gaol” and “jail” were the same word, and the second spelling was due to Noah Webster.

  2. M can help you with that. says

    Is that distinction between “jail” and “prison” universal, though, or is it a technical distinction specific to the U.S.?

  3. Chiroptera says

    Well, I’m someone who knows the difference between “jail” and “prison,” and I do appreciate it when people use the language correctly.

    On the other hand, had I listened to that particular report, I’m pretty sure I would have just raised an eye brow and then shrugged and went on with my business. I don’t see the point of the rudeness of that call.


    M can help you with that, #2:

    The reporter seems to be an American working for an American organization and broadcasting to an American audience, so I would expect her to use conventional American English meanings.

    On the other hand, it is possible that Korea doesn’t make a big distinction between those two concepts — I don’t know — and if she has spent enough time there and reporting on these types of legal issues, then she may have had a perfectly understandable lapse. I know that after I returned to the states after some time overseas, it took a little bit of time for some of the idioms to drop out of my speech.

  4. moarscienceplz says

    The fact that the caller says he doesn’t know whether the ferry captain was sentenced to 30 years in prison or not kind of denies him a leg to stand on in this argument. In California, prisons are run by the state and have high security, jails are generally run by each county and tend to have lower security levels than prisons, so they are used to house less serious offenders, so a 30 year sentence to a jail would be pretty unusual. Whether South Korea has a similar system, I don’t know, and I doubt Mr. Noah Webster here knows either.
    However, California is currently under court order to reduce the prison overcrowding, so we now have a program that sends many prison inmates back to their local jails, so the distinction between the two is a lot fuzzier now than in times past.
    But more to the point, the guy was arrogant and rude about a very minor point, so to heck with him.

  5. lanir says

    Well… That looked to me like someone who was just getting defensive about feeling smarter than other people but was doing it by attacking other people. Feeling smarter than other people can be a way to feel better about yourself and tearing other people down is often easier than building yourself up.

    So basically it just looked like an insecure person manufacturing a reason to have a cow at someone else’s expense. Reminds me of some overly used political tricks…

  6. moarscienceplz says

    BTW, “Mr. Noah Webster” in my post refers to the nasty caller, not to Robert B.

  7. sigurd jorsalfar says

    The guy was offended. He’s very proud of the fact that’s he’s only done time in jail and not in prison.

  8. fentex says

    Writing as a New Zealand English speaker -- the two meanings exist here but are equally vague to most people who likely think them as synonyms as well.

    A gaol (aka jail) is where the police put someone they need to confine but who has not yet been sentenced to a period of imprisonment in a prison by a court.

    That bit Mano links to that suggests a jail may be where a person is held for a sentence lasting a year or less is not part of the meaning as I understand in NZ or UK English.

  9. khms says

    Now something that the caller could get really upset about is how it came to be that the word ‘gaol’ came to not only mean the same thing as ‘jail’ but to be pronounced the same too.

    Turns out both variants originated over in GB long before there were dictionaries, already meaning the same and being pronounced the same, just spelled differently. I think someone there mentioned Norman French vs. Parisian French -- I wouldn’t know.

  10. Mano Singham says

    I first came across the word in the poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde. I had never heard the word spoken and in my mind sounded it phonetically as ‘gah-ol’. Such are the perils of learning English only from the written word.

  11. DsylexicHippo says

    There are countries where people awaiting trials are held in the same facility as those serving sentences, perhaps in a separate unit but under the same institutional umbrella regardless. I guess you could still draw a distinction when the words are used as verbs (jailed verses imprisoned) but not otherwise in those instances.

    In the US, if you are male, there is another unsaid distinction between the two. Unless you are a muscled hulk projecting raw physical power, prison, unlike jail, is a place where you may have no reasonable expectation of not getting raped.

  12. says

    Who is that guy on the phone, Porky Pig? “Th-th-th-that guy didn’t go to jail….”

    Mano Singham (#10) --

    I first came across the word in the poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde.

    I first saw it in Tintin’s “The Black Island”. Not quite the same level of literature, but….


    True story from my own life about correcting people while in South Korea:

    Back in 2002 (I lived there from 2001-2005), I was listening to American Forces Network (AFN) radio station because there wasn’t much choice (AFN, Arirang, or the classical music station). One of the DJs played the song “Lunatic Fringe” by the Canadian group Red Rider. After the song, he made some silly remarks like, “Hey lunatic fringe…you out there?” so I decided to call him up.

    I told him that lines in the song’s second verse, “Lunatic fringe / In the twilight’s last gleaming” refer to the US’s national anthem, that the “lunatic fringe” are certain Americans. Other lines in the verse, “We’re on guard this time / Against your final solution” refer to the Canadian national anthem, and Canadian wariness of the rise in American right wing politics and the “religious right” during the 1980s.

    He didn’t take too well to me pointing that out. I don’t think he ever played the song again.

  13. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    Certainly Wilde regarded “gaol” (or “jail”) and “prison” as exact synonyms. In England the official title is “prison”, as in *H.M. Prison Service”, but people talk about “gaol” without distinction.

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