Sunday 13 July 2014

Safe, blud, safe!

Prison slang has been around for centuries, perhaps even going back to the Classical era. In Elizabethan England, there was a tradition of ‘rogues’ and ‘vagabonds’ using what was known as ‘thieves’ cant’ – a secret language used in the criminal underworld which some researchers claim is related to Romany.

A blagger?
This tradition continued throughout the 18th century and entire dictionaries were published to catalogue and explain these terms for the edification of scholars and literate Georgian gentlemen. So we still have Nathan Bailey's The New Canting Dictionary (1737) and Francis Grose's A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785). Little has changed, except in the 21st century it can all be found online.

Closed institutions with defined membership – for example schools, universities, the armed services, clubs, gangs – all tend to have special language or jargon that is only understood by insiders. Understanding, and using, these terms correctly is a secret badge proving that the speaker is a genuine member of the group. In a way it’s very tribal. Initiates understand, outsiders don’t.

It’s only to be expected that prisoners also have their own internal language, although sometimes words or phrases pass into everyday usage. Ronnie Barker’s brilliant prison TV series Porridge has much to answer for. Of course, prison argot – like all language codes – does change and evolve. It also reveals regional variations. A very interesting source of further reading about prison slang can be found here. However, a few of the examples listed seem to be either obsolete or else are regional, perhaps from establishments in the south since the author cites HMP Winchester as his main source of information.

Everyone knows that ‘screw’ is a common term for a prison officer. It’s used almost universally among prisoners, although there is some debate about the origin. Some researchers suggest it comes from the screw keys used to secure prisoners, others that it is linked to the mechanism for making the hated Victorian prison treadmill more onerous. However the nickname originated, it remains in daily use and even some officers use it of their own profession.

Other names for staff are currently also used by inmates: ‘kanga’ (from rhyming slang: kangaroo = screw); ‘penguins’ (from the black and white uniforms of officers) or ‘scoobies’ (rhyming slang: Scooby Doo = screw).

At present, common prison words include ‘pad’ (cell) and ‘pad-mate’ (cell-mate). Years ago, many prisoners would have understood the term ‘peter’ to mean a cell, while rhyming slang produced ‘flowery’ (from ‘flowery dell' = cell). Both seem to be anachronisms. Now we have ‘pad spin’ (a cell search) and ‘padded up’ (sharing a cell).
Doing porridge

Serving a prison sentence is, of course, ‘doing time’, 'doing porridge' or often ‘doing bird’ (probably rhyming slang: bird lime = time). There is a wide range of other ‘local’ variations. For example, at one prison a long sentence was routinely described as a ‘lump’, eg: “Billy got a real lump at court this week.” In other establishments it was a ‘stretch’. The years of a sentence can be referred to as ‘sheets’ – “I got six sheets,” (ie six years) or else just by number “I’m doing a six”.

An informer or snitch is always a 'grass' and to inform is to 'grass someone up'. A grass is liable to get a 'serving' (a beating) or 'striped' (cut with a razor). Alternatively he might get 'jugged' (have boiling water mixed with sugar - and sometimes bleach tablets - thrown in his face), although I've only ever seen this happen once.

A prisoner in for a very nasty or extremely vicious offence might be referred to as ‘a right naughty parcel’ as in “That Noodles - he’s a right naughty parcel, he is!” A robber is a 'blagger', while a robbery in which victims are restrained is a 'tie-up'. A firearm can be a 'tool', a 'gat', a 'piece' or a 'strap'.

In all prisons sex offenders are variously known as ‘nonces’, ‘beasts’, ‘animals’, ‘bacons’ or ‘wrong uns’. Going onto a Vulnerable Prisoner (VP) wing is called ‘going on the numbers’ (a reference to Prison Rule 45 - formerly 43 - Removal from Association) or occasionally ‘the cucumbers’.

Burn... or snout?
Readers of previous posts will be familiar with the term ‘burn’ for tobacco. Back in the days when Porridge first appeared on television, the usual prison slang term was ‘snout’. In all the time I was in prison, I never heard this being used once. Tobacco was always ‘burn’, but again perhaps this is down to regional usage. ‘Skinny burn’ means a very thin roll-up, often scrounged from a luckier inmate who still has some burn left the day before canteen orders arrive.

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about what prisoners are called (inmates, cons, offenders). Generally, the preferred term seems to be ‘con’ (from convict). However, terms that inmates use to address each other – particularly younger prisoners – seem to be derived from US or Jamaican gang culture. Although the standard usage is ‘mate’, many younger lads prefer to call each other ‘bro’ (brother), ‘blud’ (blood), ‘cuz’ (cousin) or ‘fam’ (family). These terms seem to originate from either US gangs or from Jamaican patois.

Jamaican influence has also given us ‘waag-waan’ (sometimes ‘waag-gwaan’), patois for ‘what’s going on?’ I’d never heard this phrase before I ended up in a prison in the Midlands where it’s use was widespread among younger inmates.

Other examples of current prison slang include the use of the words ‘safe’ and ‘sound’ as meaning good or OK, as in: “Safe, blud, safe!” (OK mate, good!) One young lad who was serving time for participating in the 2010 riots seemed to have a total vocabulary of one word – “safe”, which he used in response to every question.

On ‘the out’ (the outside world) ex-prisoners can identify each other if they use specific prison slang, even if they’ve never met before. If I hear anyone using the term ‘burn’ I tend to assume that he has served time. We have a shared experience, a common characteristic, even if our lives are otherwise very different. We’re all cons and it’s as difficult to shake off as it is to completely remove a visible scar or a very noticeable tattoo.


  1. I've found a link to a few chapters from a book called "Gopper's Screw", just google it. Gopper describes a dirty con, doesn't it?

    1. Hi, thanks for your question. "Gopper" isn't a piece of cons' slang I've come across before, although I did read that piece of writing by the ex-screw a while ago. Some nicks do have their own jargon and there seems to be some differences between prisons in the south and those further north.

      For example, in most of the prisons I was in up north (Yorkshire), we called the screws "guv", but down south I gather they call them "boss". Just regional variations, I suppose. I'll try to find out more about "gopper" - and what it means.

  2. Explain "Jailcraft" please. Have you read any books by Jim Dawkins or Ronnie Thompson?

    1. Thanks for your questions. "Jailcraft" isn't a term I'm familiar with, but then different prisons have a range of slang variants. I suspect it means how to get through prison, so something like that.

      I have read Ronnie Thompson's 'Screwed' and his 'Banged Up' - both available in prison libraries (if you can actually get access to the library, that is). "Screwed" is very interesting, particularly on the issue of staff psychology. Some of the inside info is a bit out of date these days.

      of course, this is not his real name. If I remember rightly, he claims to have been a screw who got sacked for using excessive force. No idea who he really is, but he was clearly someone who really knew the system from the inside.

  3. I read an interview with him, apparently he swears like a trooper withn the book