Prison slang

Clink Street, London. Site of Clink Prison, one of England's oldest prisons and origin of the slang "In Clink". Now home to a museum of the prison, the remains of Winchester Palace and a Starbucks.

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 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.[2] Studies by Alicja Dziedzic-Rawska from the Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Poland describe prison slang as "extremely rich and creative" with new words being formed on a daily basis. These are mainly used as a means of security against unauthorized parties receiving a certain message and, in some cases, can be a way to ensure a prison inmate's survival within the cells.[3]

United StatesEdit

Term[2] Definition
Bagman Someone who is in possession of drugs
Bang[4] A drug injection (other terms include 'fix', 'hit' or 'shot')
Chester Slang term for an inmate incarcerated for child molestation
Chomo Another 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/Jody A person who is not incarcerated and is having sexual relations with an inmate's wife
Rat An Informant (an inmate who informs prison officials of any illicit activity within the prison system including prisoners and guards)
Shank/Shiv An improvised stabbing weapon
Snuffed A term for anyone who has been murdered
Seg A term meaning solitary confinement (from the official term "administrative segregation")
C.O./D.O. Correctional Officer/Detention Officer

United KingdomEdit

Term Definition
Nark Squealer
Block/Box Solitary confinement.
Nerk/nirk Stupid/unpleasant person/inmate. Term of abuse used to the face.
Nonce A person in prison for offences against children. Originally a 19th century acronym for Not On Normal Courtyard Exercise, denoting prisoners that that to be segregated from the general prison populace for their own protection.
Pompey Northern England slang for a prison,[5] possibly originating from a notorious prison ship named Pompee, that was anchored in Portsmouth Harbour in the early nineteenth century.
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.
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. Possibly also from the pattern of walking to the end of a row of cells, turning, and walking back, constantly rotating like a screw
Snout/burner A cigarette
Squealer, Rat, Grass Anyone who gives information to another group – primarily to the prison authorities.


Term[6] Definition
Bang A drug injection (other terms include 'fix', 'hit' or 'shot').
The boneyard Protective custody
Booshwa/fit Syringe
Bupe Buprenorphine
Cockatoo An inmate tasked with alerting other inmates that prison officers are approaching
Crim Criminal/inmate
Dog An informant
Greens Prison clothing
Laggon Prison sentence
The pound Solitary confinement
Red light 'Red light' is the code-word used by inmates to warn that prison officers are approaching
Screw Pejorative term for prison officer
Scrim Pejorative term for inmates who work in clerical positions within the prison. Portmanteau of 'Screw' and 'Crim'.
Segro Segregation wing
Shiv Makeshift stabbing weapon
Spinner An inmate acting strangely, highly associated with mental health issues
Sweeper An inmate paid by the prison to do domestic duties
Turtles The Squad. Specially trained and heavily equipped prison officers tasked with searching cells and riot control
Uncle Bully An inmate convicted of child sex offences; a reference to a character from the film Once Were Warriors.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Mayr, A. 2012. Prison Language. The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics.
  2. ^ a b c Little, Bert (Summer 1982). "Prison Lingo: A Style of American English Slang". Anthropological Linguistics. 24: 206–244. JSTOR 30027838.
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ Devlin, Angela (1996). Prison Patter: A Dictionary of Prison Words and Slang. Waterside Press. ISBN 9781872870410.
  5. ^ "Why is Portsmouth called Pompey?". The Guardian. Archived from the original on March 11, 2019.
  6. ^ Hildebrand, Joe (April 28, 2017). "Your complete guide to prison slang". Archived from the original on March 11, 2019.

External linksEdit