Why, you ask, would anyone now alive want to read the January 1918 issue of the journal Railway Signal Engineer? One answer is that, wedged between an article titled “Maintaining an Interlocking Plant at High Tide” and another called “Handling Lead Sheath Underground Cables” is one that bears the title “Further Confessions of an Ex-Maintainer” and the subtitle “In Which We Learn Something of the History Surrounding the Early Development of Panama and Adjacent Country.” Unlike the two pieces surrounding it and almost all the others in the journal, this one was not technical or serious; it was a humorous retelling of the early Spanish development of Panama. The article gives a modern reader an idea of what passed for humor in the United States almost a century ago, complete with some occasional comments that are far from what is now politically correct.

As an example, take this passage from the unsigned article: “Characteristically, Balboa was a combination of eel, fox, weasel and bull dog. He was ingenious to the Nth power. [Who knew that the non-mathematical usage of that phrase went back so far?] When in a dry territory, he originated the idea of drinking grape juice, eating a yeast cake and sitting quiet until it fermented, in order to get an alcoholic kick. In other words, he was a good ward politician who happened to be dumped out here on earth 400 years ahead of his time. Everything in Haiti was too slow, so he sat around with his face in his lap and took five medals for being the prize pessimist of the island.”

The next paragraph contained today’s word: “About this time another anchor heaving captain by the name of Encisco was about to sail from Haiti for the Darien country. Balboa was about to be slammed into the Hoosegow for debt so he bribed a couple of dock wollopers to put him in an empty cask and smuggle him on board the ship.”

Spanish juzgar, which in Old Spanish had been judgar, means the same as its English cognate judge, so the past participle juzgado means literally ‘judged.’ Around the time of Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas, Spanish began using  juzgado as a noun. Meanings include ‘court, tribunal,’ and the fancy ‘judicature’; a juzgado can also be ‘a place where judging is carried out.’ In Spanish, a -d- between vowels is weakened and in some dialects disappears altogether, so that juzgado can come out sounding like juzgao. In the early 20th century, English speakers in the west of the United States, not having the sound of Spanish j, heard the Spanish word pronounced as if it began with English h. When they borrowed the word as a slang term for ‘a place where people are kept while waiting to be judged,’ which is to say ‘a jail,’ they Anglicized the spelling to the hoosegow that has been the standard form ever since

Although hoosegow is slang, Carl Sandburg used it twice in his poem “Aprons of Silence,” which appeared in 1920:

“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….

“Here I took along my own hoosegow
And did business with my own thoughts.”

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Nov 22, 2014 @ 21:56:14

    Not only does the “Nth power” go back that far, so does the venerable snipe hunt. Who knew?

    The journal article isn’t just amusing, it’s a wonderful antidote to — well, to a lot. I passed it on to Omar. I know he’ll enjoy it: not only for the Panamanian history, but also because his father worked for the railroad there.

    I kept thinking I’d found the best line in the piece, and then another popped up. I did rather like, “The Generals shook the centipedes out of their uniforms and gathered together a mighty army of the faithful to invade Panama.” But there were many more good lines: too many to quote.

    As for hoosegow, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard the word spoken, except in Western movies and television shows. But not long after Sandburg wrote about his personal hoosegow, Laurel and Hardy were telling the story of The Hoose-Gow.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Nov 22, 2014 @ 23:21:27

      I’m happy that you got such a kick out of that piece of old-fashioned humor.

      Like you, I mostly know the terms hoosegow from old cowboy movies that I watched on television during those early years when I also enjoyed old Laurel and Hardy reruns like the one you linked to. I think, though, that I have heard the word spoken on rare occasions.


  2. Maria F.
    Nov 29, 2014 @ 11:58:15

    In P.R. we don’t use the word ‘juzgado’ as a noun. We use it as a verb.
    “El fue juzgado por el crimen”.
    We use “jurado” which is used to refer to ‘court or tribunal’.
    “El se declaró inocente ante el jurado”.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Nov 29, 2014 @ 14:31:30

      I don’t believe I heard juzgado as a noun in Honduras either. It must have been used that way in some parts of the American West, though, or English speakers wouldn’t have borrowed the word in that sense.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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