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
“Here I took along my own hoosegow
And did business with my own thoughts.”
© 2014 Steven Schwartzman