[ jeyl ]
/ dʒeɪl /
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See synonyms for: jail / jailed / jailing on Thesaurus.com

a prison, especially one for the detention of persons awaiting trial or convicted of minor offenses.
verb (used with object)
to take into or hold in lawful custody; imprison.


What Is The Difference Between "Jail" And "Prison"?

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Also British, gaol .

Origin of jail

1225–75; Middle English gaiole, jaiole, jaile<Old North French gaiole,Old French jaiole cage <Vulgar Latin *gaviola, variant of *caveola, diminutive of Latin caveacage; see -ole1



jail , prison
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What is a basic definition of jail?

A jail is a building that houses prisoners and people accused of crimes, especially minor crimes. Jail also means to imprison for committing a crime or to lawfully detain a person.

A jail is a building where criminals or people accused of crimes are housed. Jails are usually small buildings that keep prisoners only until they go to trial or for criminals with short punishments. Typically, a prisoner only spends around 90 days in a jail. A person accused of a more serious crime may be kept in a jail until their trial or until they are transferred to a larger facility. The phrase “in jail” often means a person is spending time in a jail. A person who manages a jail or puts a person in a jail is called a jailer.

  • Real-life examples: In the United States, jails are usually managed at the local level, such as by a town or county. A person who commits a minor offense such as being drunk in public or trespassing may be sentenced to spend time in a county jail.
  • Used in a sentence: After a wild night, the partygoers woke up the next morning in the city jail.

As a verb, jail means to imprison a person for a crime as allowed under the law. This sense specifically refers to legal imprisonment, usually by police officers, rather than by kidnapping or abduction.

  • Real-life examples: If a person is arrested by police, they are usually jailed until they are taken to trial. Depending on the judge’s ruling, they may be jailed again as punishment for a crime.
  • Used in a sentence: The police quickly jailed the men who were caught trying to steal a car.

Jail can easily be confused for prison, and the two are often used interchangeably when referring to lawful imprisonment in general.

In the United States, a prison is managed by a state or the federal government and typically holds prisoners convicted of serious crimes who have very long sentences. Prisons are larger, usually better funded, and have much tighter security than jails. Prison can also be used more generally to refer to any place a person is confined, like a basement or in your own head. Jail is specifically a place for prisoners or people accused of crimes.

Gaol is a variant spelling of jail used mostly in British English.

Where does jail come from?

The first records of jail come from the 1200s. It ultimately comes from the Vulgar Latin caveola, from the Latin cavea, meaning “cage” or “enclosure.”

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What are some other forms related to jail?

  • gaol (alternative spelling)
  • jailable (adjective)
  • jailless (adjective)
  • jaillike (adjective)
  • nonjailable (adjective)

What are some synonyms for jail?

What are some words that share a root or word element with jail?

What are some words that often get used in discussing jail?

What are some words jail may be commonly confused with?

How is jail used in real life?

Jail commonly refers to a place that police keep prisoners or people awaiting trial.

Try using jail!

True or False?

A jail is a building that houses people who are lawfully imprisoned.

How to use jail in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for jail



/ (dʒeɪl) /

a place for the confinement of persons convicted and sentenced to imprisonment or of persons awaiting trial to whom bail is not granted
get out of jail or get out of jail free informal to get out of a difficult situation
(tr) to confine in prison

Derived forms of jail

jailless or gaolless, adjectivejail-like or gaol-like, adjective

Word Origin for jail

C13: from Old French jaiole cage, from Vulgar Latin caveola (unattested), from Latin cavea enclosure; see cage : the two spellings derive from the forms of the word that developed in two different areas of France, and the spelling gaol represents a pronunciation in use until the 17th century
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012