Prison slang

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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 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)
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 isolation or the punishment block

See also[edit]


  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. 

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