Prison slang is an argot used primarily by criminals and detainees in correctional institutions. It is a form of anti-language.[1] Many of the terms deal with criminal behavior, incarcerated life, legal cases, street life, and different types of inmates. Prison slang has existed as long as there have been crime and prisons; in Charles Dickens' time it was known as "thieves' cant". Words from prison slang often eventually migrate into common usage, such as "snitch", "ducking", and "narc".


Prisoners in front of Main Cell Block, c. 1971

Prison slang, like other types of slang and dialects, varies by region. For that reason, the origins and the movement of prison slang across prisons are of interest to many linguists and cultural anthropologists.

Some terms used in current prison slang are quite old. For example, "to cart", meaning to transfer to another prison, has been in use in Glasgow since 1733.[1]

A two-year study was done by Bert Little, Ph.D. on American English slang with the main focus being in the coastal plain region of the Southeast U.S.[2] His study published by The Trustees of Indiana University on behalf of the Anthropological Linguistics journal goes on to provide an extensive glossary of common prison slang terms that he found circling through the prison systems. Below is a list of examples included in the glossary:[2]

Bagman Someone who is in possession of drugs
Bang[3] A drug injection (other terms include fix, hit, shot)
Chester Slang term for an inmate incarcerated for child molestation
Chomo Also a slang term for an inmate incarcerated for child molestation
Green A term for paper money
Iced A term for killing another inmate or prison guard
In the hole When an inmate is separated from the other inmates by the authorities in a separate, isolated unit
Longjohn A person who is not incarcerated and is having sexual relations with an inmate's wife
Rat The equivalent as a snitch; an inmate who informs prison officials of any illicit activity within the prison system including prisoners and guards
Shank A knife or some functional homemade instrument that can used for the same functionality of a knife
Snuffed A term for anyone who has been murdered
Seg A term meaning solitary confinement (from the official term "administrative segregation")

Studies by Alicja Dziedzic-Rawska from the Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Poland describe prison slag as "extremely rich and creative"[4] with new words being formed on a daily basis. These are mainly used as a means of security against unauthorised parties from receiving a certain message and, in some cases, can be a way to ensure a prison mate's survival within the cells.[5]

UK common terms

Screw Prison Officer - probably originating from a Victorian form of punishment involving a wheel to be turned on which a screw could be turned to make it more or less difficult.
Nerk/Nirk Stupid/unpleasant person/inmate. Term of abuse used to the face.
Nark Squealer
Nonce Short derogatory term for (usually) well presented, potentially effete, usually well spoken prisoner with more than average learning causing perceived non-social attitudes -- usually with an implication of at least an effeminate nature or Gayness.
Porridge one time main meal (alleged) used as term for doing a prison sentence. Popularised by the popular BBC series "Porridge" - which in turn popularized many prison slang words.
Rat Squealer
Snout Tobacco - usually a small amount - used in trade.
Squealer Anyone who gives information to another group - primarily to the prison authorities.

See also


  1. ^ a b Mayr, A. 2012. Prison Language. The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics.
  2. ^ a b Little, Bert (Summer 1982). "Prison Lingo: A Style of American English Slang" (PDF). Anthropological Linguisitcs. 24: 206–244. 
  3. ^ Devlin, Angela (1996). Prison Patter: A Dictionary of Prison Words and Slang. Waterside Press. ISBN 9781872870410. 
  4. ^ Dziedzic-Rawska, Alicja (2016-07-27). "Linguistic creativity in American prison settings". Lublin Studies in Modern Languages and Literature. 40 (1): 81. ISSN 0137-4699. 
  5. ^ Dziedzic-Rawska, Alicja (Spring 2017). "Linguistic creativity in American prison settings". LUBLIN STUDIES IN MODERN LANGUAGES AND LITERATURE 40(1), 2016. 

External links