PRISON LINGO: THE LANGUAGE OF THE PRISON COMMUNITY
‘Prison Lingo: The Language of the Prison Community’ is the result of a collaboration between the English Project and HMP Winchester in October 2010. That year the theme of the English Language Festival was the Language of Place and Community, and prisoners were invited to listen to a talk about the origins and development of prison cant, slang and jargon and, at the same time, to contribute their own knowledge of prison language and to talk about their use of it.
Six prisoners, two officers and a university professor engaged in a two-and-a-half-hour seminar that mixed lecture, class work and chat. One prisoner was new to the system; another had spent ten years in various prisons. Two prisoners came from Europe, and one of them was more interested in learning Standard English than Prison English. The most voluble prisoner was an Afro-Caribbean; the most informative made the comment that the important thing about prison lingo is its wit. The glossary at the end of this article gives the words and terms that these men provided. A number of items are good proofs of prison wit.
The English Project’s thanks go to these men, to the two officers in attendance, to Vinod Bhalla, HMP Winchester’s Curriculum Team Leader, for arranging the class, and to David Ward, Governor of HMP Winchester, for giving permission for the class.
Prison is a rich place for talk. Randy Kearse, an American convict, spent nine years in prison compiling a dictionary that he called it Street Slang. It was published in 2007. He planned to collect 1001 terms, and he ended up with 10,000. That’s a lot of words, but they say that there are now a million words in the English language. Most people have use from 20,000 to 50,000 words so that leaves a lot of words to spare, many thousands of them are slang words. Randy Hearse was not making a dictionary of prison lingo exclusively, but prison is a good place, he says, to collect words. ‘Guys have nothing but time on their hands in prison. So being able to talk witty, being able to talk slick, really highlights you as an individual.’ (Kearse, qtd in Curtis). The English Project is very interested in the languages, or lingoes as we like to call them, of special groups because they can tells us a great deal about the English language. Prison lingo is a special version of the English language. It is very old; it goes back to Shakespeare’s day and beyond, and it is widespread. Versions are found in the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, everywhere in the English-speaking world.
Prison lingo is primarily a spoken language; it can be written down, but it is not intended to be used for writing and so it has it own special features and its own problems for students. Prison lingo overlaps with street talk, teentalk, rhyming slang, Cockney, and the home dialects of prisoners so it is sometimes difficult to say whether this word or that phrase should be included, but there is a host of words that are clearly part of prison lingo.
Julie Coleman, a linguist at the University of Leicester, has provided some useful terms to help us discuss special forms of the English language like prison lingo. She talks about slang, jargon and cant: ‘slang is defined as the ephemeral terms used by any in-group in order to distinguish them from other groups; jargon is defined as a professional language allowing for precise discussion of topics related to the given vocation; and cant is defined as a language used to obfuscate meaning completely from those not accepted by the in-group, ordinarily for criminal intent’. (Coleman, qtd by Ellis) Prison lingo has elements of all three: slang, jargon and cant.
Cant, or secret language, is perhaps the oldest form of prison lingo. The Oxford English Dictionary calls cant ‘the secret language […] used by gipsies, thieves, professional beggars, etc.’ (OED) Thieves’ cant was popular on the stage in Shakespeare’s day, and, since it was used so often in plays, it seems the audience must have known what the words meant or could guess the meanings pretty well.
Thieves’ cant continued as a language of eighteenth century London where the back streets were filled with ‘jarkmen, lurchers, dudders, lully priggers, hods and kinchins, tom turdmen and mopsqueezers’.
They were all different kinds of tricksters and conmen. Their talk got the name ‘Flash’ because it was so racy, lively and rich. (Tupper) Romani, the language of the gypsies, has provided a large number of words in London thieves’ cant. People talking Romani would truly be talking a secret language as far as the London thief takers were concerned.
(Becker-Ho, qtd by Ellis) And that contrasts with London cant which thief takers were as likely to know as the thieves themselves. Thieves’ cant is street talk, a language of the outside world, but it was also used on the inside so it is the starting point for prison lingo. Jargon and slang provide further words.
Jargon is where the language of the law and the language of prisoners overlap. Website glossaries exist for lawyers’ terms, police terms, prison officers’ terms, and parole-board terms. By contrast with cant and slang, jargon is a formal kind of language, as likely to appear in writing as in speech. Some terms, like ‘wing’, and ‘block’, appear in law enforcement lists as well as prison-lingo lists.
Some of the legal lingo, like ‘ASBO’, ‘ABC’ (for Antisocial Behaviour Contract), ‘ABH’ and ‘GBH’, are used by both sides of the law. Those examples are all acronyms, and the majority of prison officer terms in the website glossaries are made up that way.
Some terms, like ‘association’, ‘parole’, and ‘segregation’, are part of the general vocabulary but have special meanings within the prison system.
‘Slopping out’, a phrase used to describe an action found only in prisons, is a piece of prison lingo suspended between jargon and slang. ‘Slopping out’ was abolished in England and Wales in the 1990s, but the practice still continues in Scotland as does the term. In 2007, there was a great debate about it - in the House of Lords, the law courts, and the Scottish Parliament. Always the phrase ‘slopping out’ appears in quotation marks as if it is a substitute for a more polite phrase, but what that is no one cares to say. (BBC News) If cant is the oldest kind of prison lingo, slang will be the most recent kind. Slang has a strange quality: it changes at a much greater rate than the language as a whole. That is why it is not liked by teachers and judges. The Oxford English Dictionary calls it a ‘special vocabulary used by any set of persons of a low or disreputable character; language of a low and vulgar type’. (OED) That is a very negative description of one of the English language’s most creative fields, a form of the language that changes as rapidly as the group using it changes. Teentalk changes every five years, and it does so because it is so easily picked up by outside groups. Teenagers like to talk a language that is closed to their parents and teachers, but to remain closed it has to keep changing. Prison slang shows a rate of change slower than that of Teenspeak but, nonetheless, it is subject to a fairly rapid rate of change. It needs also to be said that it displays great creativity by way of irony, rhyme, pun and image.
In studying prison lingo, we are looking for cant, slang and jargon. The job is not easy. Jesse Sheidlower, a one-time dictionary editor, ‘prefers guides from amateurs who are collecting slang from their environs rather than dictionary professionals’ who often take their material from written sources.
(Curtis) But collecting words in the prisons raises its own problems. Patrick Ellis of the University of Toronto says that most online glossaries have been compiled by prison guards for themselves and other authority figures. They are, then, in his opinion, to be mistrusted for that reason. (Ellis) Another tricky problem with prison lingo is that sometimes prisoners feed nonsense to people who come asking them questions.
American prison lingo is the best documented, especially on the net, and it has a very large African American element in the Northern prisons and a large Latin American element in the southern prisons. ‘Despite such regionalism,’ says Patrick Ellis, ‘there is a lasting and remarkably diffuse presence of certain archaic slang and cant terms, if not entire cant languages, in prison environments across the country.’ The same is true of Australian prison lingo, especially since Australian English owes so much to Cockney English.
Many of the websites that provide explanations of prison lingo claim to be helping the wives and girl friends of prisoners understand what their men are saying. There is another group of people who might find a guide to prison lingo useful - people about to enter prison. For them, the Prison Reform Trust in collaboration with the Prison Service provides a book called the Prisoners’ Information Book. On the cover, there is a quotation from a prisoner at HMP Wandsworth. He says: ‘Arriving at prison can be a bewildering and stressful experience. This handbook is like having a friend to guide you through the first steps inside.’ The Prisoners’ Information Book aims to help men arriving at prison. It has got 159 pages of information, and it covers Arrival, Appeals, Sentences, Family, Prison Life, Health, Rules, and so on. However, it does not have a section on prison lingo, and it would be a good to start to write such a section up. (The glossary at the end of this article represents a beginning.) Prison lingo has been said to be ‘charged with cynicism, suspicion, gloom and coercion’ (Morgan, qtd by Tupper), and that seems true enough; however, the prisoners at HMP Winchester did not take a negative view of their language. As the prisoners offered their words for a beginner’s glossary, there was a great deal of laughing and joking with amusing disputations about the meanings of words. ‘Nosh’ appeared to mean more than one thing, and the link between the meanings revealed a dark humour. The name ‘bomb squad’ given to the prisoners set to clean an area into which excrement has been thrown pokes as much fun at the police force’s elite as it does at prison inmates.
Vernon Tupper and Richard Wortley, who have made a study of the matter, argue that the reasons that prisoners use prison lingo are release, emotion, the need to express violence without being violent, teasing, and joking. (Tupper) HMP Winchester prisoners only went so far with this explanation, and they were even less satisfied with another of Tupper and Wortley’s explanations. The experts say that a prisoner needs to learn prison lingo in order to survive in the violent world of the prison in order that not to expose himself as new to it or aloof from it. (Tupper) HMP Winchester prisoners said that it was not particularly important to learn prison lingo.
One of them added, ‘It’s easy enough to learn; you soon pick it up.’ HMP Winchester, it was agreed, is not a violent prison. The prisoners said that they are not frightened of bullying, there are no gangs and there is no routine intimidation. That reflects the kind of prison that it is, largely remand, and with no Category A prisoners - ‘prisoners whose escape would be highly dangerous to the public or the police or the security of the state.’ (PAS) It might be more important to become more fluent in prison lingo in a more dangerous prison.
Prison lingo is said to have particular areas of high verbal activity. Tupper and Wortley (quoting Clemmer) list: sex, body parts, descriptions of others, alcohol, drugs, and prison related uses. Ellis lists ‘sexual practices, contraband and crime, and institutional processes’. The HMP Winchester glossary, as so far collected, does and does not bear this line of argument out. Certainly there are word clusters. Five words came up for paedophile. There is a clutch of words relating to beating up and or restraining a prisoner. But only four terms relating to sexual activity were provided, and none relating to body parts. It is likely that the fact that the words were being collected in an open classroom with a stranger and two women officers present led to the prisoners not giving anything like a full list. Very few words, also, were provided in the areas of alcohol and drugs.
Some conclusions can be drawn. Prison slang is a linguistic resource, one valued by linguists. One of them gives the following reasons for doing so: historical research, sociological analysis, and criminal psychology. (Tupper) At the same time, it is probably right to think that prisoners can gain something from being made aware that there are those in the outside world who take a keen interest in prison lingo. Being aware and proud of your own English is an aid to using appropriate English. And becoming aware of the English you are using is an aid to using English better.
A GLOSSARY OF HMP WINCHESTER LINGO
The eighty-one words and terms that follow are the lexical items that were collected in a single session with six prisoners in HMP Winchester. A full prison glossary would contain at least 1000 items.
A Four = A Four-Year Sentence
A Two = A Two-Year Sentence
An Eight = An Eight-Year Sentence
Animal = A Paedophile
Apps = Applications, such as applying tomake phone calls
Bacon, Bacon Head = A Paedophile, (Rhyming Slang, Bonce (Head) > Nonce)
Bang Weights = To Work Out in the Gym
Bang-Out, Banging-Out: To Beat up
Bang-up, Banging-Up = To lock in a cell
Bare = Plenty, Lots of, as in ‘I have bare cigarettes.’
Bash = To Masturbate
Basic, Put on Basic = Confined to Cell with Privileges (television, books, etc) Removed
Beast = A Paedophile
Bend-Up, Bending-Up = To restrain a prisoner in his cell, prior to moving him
Bin = A Prison
Bird = Time in Prison (Rhyming Slang, Bird-Lime)
Bird, Doing Bird = To spend time in prison
Blag, Blagging = To Rob
Block = The Punishment Block
Bomb Squad = Prisoners set to clean an area into which excrement has been thrown from the windows of the prison
Boob = A Prison
Boss = A Prison Officer
Box = Cell within a Cell
Brew = Alcohol
Burn = Tobacco
Burn Cat = A Tobacco Addict
Cage = Cell within a Cell
Carpet = A Sentence of Three Years
Cat = A Convict
Down the Brink = Segregated, Put in Segregation
Drum = A House
Drum, Drumming = To Burgle
Echo = an Exercise Yard
E-Man = A Prisoner who has attempted to escape and who wears an orange jersey.
EPP = An Extended Sentence for Public Protection
Ghost, Ghosting = To move a prisoner from one prison to another without warning
Ghost, To Be Ghosted = To go to the Visitor Centre and find that your visitor has not turned up
Golden Hour = Between 08.00-09.00 am when prisoners fill out applications for various requests. This term was thought to be local to HMP Winchester.
Gov = A Prison Officer
Grass = An Informer
Hench = Big, Well-Built
IPP = An Indefinite Sentence for Public Protection
Jam (Jam Roll) = Parole
Jammer = A Knife, usually a homemade one
Kanga = Prison Officer (Rhyming Slang from
Kangaroo to rhyme with Screw, one of the most common names for a Prison
Officer or Warder)
Kite = A Cheque
Kite, Kiting = To Pass Dud Cheques
Knock Out, Knocking One Out = To Masturbate
Lock-Down, Locking-Down = To lock cells
Marga = Small, Skinny (A Jamaican Word)
Meds = Application to see a medical officer
Nicker = A Chaplain (Rhyming Slang, Vicar)
Nonce = A Paedophile
Nosh = A Blow Job
Nosh = Food
Peter = A Cell
Raze-Up, Razing-Up = To Cut with A Razor, as in ‘I’ll raze you up.’
Ride, Riding My Bang = To Spend Time in Prison
Roast, Roasting = Hanging About While Expecting Something to Happen
Rub-Down, Rubbing Down = To Search a Cell
Rush-In, Rushing-In = To restrain a prisoner in his cell, prior to moving him
Salmon = Tobacco
Screw = Prison Officer
Shank = A Knife, usually a homemade one
Shipped Out, Shipping Out = To be transferred from one prison to another without warning
Shiv = A Knife, usually a homemade one
Skins = Cigarette Papers
Snitch = An Informer
Snout = Tobacco
Spin, Spinning = To search a cell
Sweeper = Someone who collects cigarette butts.
Swing, Swinging a Line = Cell to Cell Communication, often by meanings of swinging a piece of string from one cell to another
Tear-Up, Tearing-Up = To Beat up
Vanilla = A Judge (Rhyming Slang, Vanilla Fudge)
Vera = Cigarette Paper (Rhyming Slang, Vera Lyn = A Skin)
Visit, Visiting = To Leave the Prison, as in: ‘I’m going visiting.’
Wet-Up, Wetting-Up = To Cut Up
Whack-Up, Whacking-Up = To Beat up
Winda Warrior = Someone who shouts out of windows.
Wood = An Erection
Wrap-Up, Wrapping-Up = To restrain a prisoner in his cell, prior to moving him
Wrong-un = A Paedophile
BBC News. ‘Deal to end slopping out payments.’ 19 March 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/7952050.stm.
Curtis, Bryan. ‘The Con’s English: How to write a dictionary in prison.’ Slate. 2007.http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/letter_from_new_york/2007/05/the_cons_english.html
Ellis, Patrick. The Prison-House and Language: Modern American Prison Argot. Toronto: http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~cpercy/courses/6362-ellis, 2005.
Kearse, Randy. Street Slang. Fort Lee: Barricade Books, 2007.
OED. Oxford English Dictionary. http://dictionary.oed.com/entrance.dtl.
PAS. ‘Categorisation - Male Prisoners.’ Prisoners Advice Service. PAS: http://www.prisonersadvice.org.uk/DOCS/INFORMATION/CATEGORISATIONMale.pdf
Prison Reform Trust. Prisoners’ Information Book: Male Prisoners and Young Offenders. London: Prison Reform Trust, 2008. http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/pibs/PIBmenyo.pdf
Tupper, Vernon, and Richard Wortley. Anthology of Prison Slang in Australia. Charles Sturt University: http://csusap.csu.edu.au/~srelf/Psych1/INTROSLA.html, 1990.