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50 Prison Slang Words To Make You Sound Like a Tough Guy

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We’ve been just a little bit obsessed with old timey and subcultural slang here at the Floss as of late, and today we’re going to mine one of the richest sources for weird slang and code-talk: criminals. Here are some choice bits of prison lingo we’ve gathered from slang dictionaries, true crime stories, prisoners’ memoirs, and correctional officers.

1. All Day: A life sentence, as in “I’m doin' all day.”

2. All Day and a Night: Life without parole.

3. Back door parole: To die in prison.

4. Beef: 1. A criminal charge, as in “I caught a burglary beef in Philly.” 2. A problem with another convict, as in “I have a beef with that guy in Block D.”

5. Brake fluid: Psychiatric meds.

6. Bug: A prison staff member considered untrustworthy or unreliable.

7. Bug juice: Intoxicants or depressant drugs.

8. Buck Rogers Time: (early to mid 20th century) A parole or release date so far away that it's difficult to imagine.

9. Bum Beef: A false accusation/charge or wrongful conviction.

10. Cadillac: An inmate’s bunk. Also, Cadillac Job, an easy or enjoyable inmate work assignment.

11. Catch a ride: A request to a friend to get you high.

12. Cell Warrior: An inmate that puts on a tough front or runs their mouth when locked in their cell, but is submissive or cowardly when interacting with other prisoners in the open.

13. Chin Check: To punch another inmate in the jaw to see if he'll fight back.

14. Cowboy: A new correctional officer. Cowboy spelled backwards, is yobwoc, or a “young, obnoxious, bastard we often con.”

15. Dance on the blacktop: To get stabbed.

16. Diesel Therapy: A lengthy bus trip or transfer to a far away facility, or even an incorrect destination, used as punishment or to get rid of troublesome inmates.

17. Ding Wing: A prison’s psychiatric unit.

18. Dipping in the Kool Aid: Attempting to enter a conversation the person has no place in or is not welcome in.

19. Doing the Dutch Or the “Dutch Act,” to commit suicide.

20. Dry Snitching: To inform on another inmate indirectly by talking loudly about their actions or behaving suspiciously in front of correctional officers; supply general information to officers without naming names.

21. Duck: A correctional officer who reveals information about other officers or prison staff to inmates.

22. Fire on the Line: A warning—“correctional officer in the area.”

23. Ghetto Penthouse: The top tier of a cell block.

24. Four piece or four-piece suit: A full set of restraints, composed of handcuffs, leg irons and waist chain, and security boxes to cover the restraints’ key holes.

25. Grandma’s: Or Grandma’s House, a prison gang’s headquarters or meeting place, or the cell of the gang leader.

26. Heat Wave: The attention brought to a group of inmates by the action of one or a few, as in “Joe and John got caught with contraband, and now the whole tier is going through a heat wave.”

27. Hold your mud: To resist informing or snitching even under threat of punishment or violence.

28. I got jigs: To keep look out or watch for officers, as in “I got jigs while you make that shank.”

29. In the car: In on a deal or a plan.

30. Jacket: 1. An inmate’s information file or rap sheet. 2. An inmate’s reputation among other prisoners.

31. Jack Mack: Canned mackerel or other fish available from the prison commissary. Can be used as currency with other inmates or placed in a sock and used as a weapon.

32. Jackrabbit Parole: To escape from a facility.

33. Juice Card: An inmate’s influence with guards or other prisoners. “He should have gone to the hole for that, but he’s got a juice card with one of the guards.”

34. Keister: To hide contraband in one’s rectum. Also known as “taking it to the hoop,” “putting it in the safe”and “packing the rabbit.”

35. Kite: A contraband letter.

36. Monkey Mouth: A prisoner who goes on and on about nothing.

37. Monster: HIV. Also known as “the Ninja.”

38. Ninja Turtles: Guards dressed in full riot gear. Also known as “hats and bats.”

39. No Smoke: To follow staff’s orders without resisting or causing any problems, as in “He let the guards search his cell, no smoke.”

40. On the Bumper: Trying to get “in the car.”

41. On the River: Time spent at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which is surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River. As in, “He did 20 years on the river.”

42. Peels: The orange jumpsuit uniforms worn by prisoners in some facilities.

43. Prison Wolf: An inmate who is normally straight on “the outside,” but engages in sexual activity with men while incarcerated.

44. Rabbit: An inmate who has a history of escape attempts or has plans to try to escape.

45. Ride with: To do favors for a fellow convict, often including sexual ones, in exchange for protection, contraband, prison currency, or commissary items.

46. Ride Leg: To be friendly with or suck up to staff in order to get favors.

47. Road Kill: Cigarette butts picked up from roadsides by prison work crew. They’re brought back to the facility and the collected tobacco is rerolled with toilet paper to smoke.

48. Stainless Steel Ride: Death by lethal injection.

49. Three Knee Deep: To stab someone so that they’re injured, but not killed, usually as a warning.

50. Wolf Tickets: To talk tough or challenge others, without any intent to back it up with action or violence, as in “He’s just selling wolf tickets.”

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How New Words Become Mainstream
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If you used the words jeggings, muggle, or binge-watch in a sentence 30 years ago, you would have likely been met with stares of confusion. But today these words are common enough to hold spots in the Oxford English Dictionary. Such lingo is a sign that English, as well as any other modern language, is constantly evolving. But the path a word takes to enter the general lexicon isn’t always a straightforward one.

In the video below, TED-Ed lays out how some new words become part of our everyday speech while others fade into obscurity. Some words used by English speakers are borrowed from other languages, like mosquito (Spanish), avatar (Sanskrit), and prairie (French). Other “new” words are actually old ones that have developed different meanings over time. Nice, for example, used to only mean silly, foolish, or ignorant, and meat was used as blanket term to describe any solid food given to livestock.

The internet alone is responsible for a whole new section of our vocabulary, but even the words most exclusive to the web aren’t always original. For instance, the word meme was first used by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.

To learn more about the true origins of the words we use on a regular basis, check out the full story from TED-Ed below.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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10 Pun-derful Facts About Puns
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Puns can be divisive: Some find them irresistible, some find them groan-worthy. And while newspaper readers may appreciate clever wordplay in a headline—say, “Big Rig Carrying Fruit Crashes on 210 Freeway, Creates Jam,” or one of The New York Post’s seemingly endless Anthony Weiner puns—most people don’t drop puns in everyday conversation.

But for others, punning is a way of life. Pun competitions challenge wordsmiths to come up with as many great puns as they can on the fly in front of an audience. And they aren’t for the faint of heart, as author Joe Berkowitz found out over the course of writing Away With Words, his new book about the world of competitive punning. Here are ten facts we learned from the book about puns and the art of wielding them competitively.

1. PUNNING IS ANCIENT.

Making puns “crosses all major languages and cultures in history,” John Pollack, an international punning champion and the author of a historical look at the phenomenon, The Pun Also Rises, told Berkowitz. In San Juan Chamula, Mexico, a tradition of verbal duels called k’ehel k’op, which often revolves around puns, dates back to Mayan times. Traditional Palestinian weddings have featured pun-heavy oral poetry duels for centuries.

2. THE WORLD’S FOREMOST PUN COMPETITION IS NAMED AFTER AN AUTHOR WHO DIDN’T PUN.

The largest and most prestigious pun competition is the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships, held every year in Austin, Texas. You’d think the reference to the famous short story writer would nod to his affinity for puns, but in fact, there’s not a lot of evidence he liked them at all. “Although he did name one of his stories ‘A Midsummer Knight’s Dream,’ the author’s work is largely pun-free,” Berkowitz writes. During the course of writing the book, he visited the O. Henry Museum in Austin, where the Pun-Off is held, and was informed that the connection between puns and the author O. Henry is quite tenuous. “Between you and me, he was not a huge punner,” a tour guide told him. “That connection was made between the museum and the Pun-Off early on because it was held here, and it just stuck.”

3. THERE ARE FOUR DIFFERENT KINDS OF PUN.

There’s the homophonic pun, in which two words sound the same but mean something different. (“Czech” and “check,” for instance.) Then there’s the homographic pun, in which two words sound different but are spelled the same. (Like a bass player versus a bass fish.) There are also homonymic puns, in which the words both sound and are spelled the same. (Berkowitz’s example: “I felt unsettled inside so I had an evening out.”) And last, there’s the portmanteau, a combination of two other words. (Like “brunch.”)

4. AT THE PUN-OFF, THE RULES ARE SERIOUS BUSINESS.

The O. Henry Pun-Off in Austin—a competition Berkowitz calls “the Olympics of pun competitions”—has strict rules. Only honest-to-goodness puns are accepted. You can’t just throw in a phrase related to a topic if it doesn’t have the necessary wordplay to qualify as one of the four types of pun. “If the topic is railroads, we will not accept anything like, ‘I hope we stay on track,’” Pun-Off organizer Gary Hallock told Berkowitz by way of explanation.

There are two competitions wrapped into the O. Henry Pun-Off: "Punniest of Show" and "Punslingers." In the former, competitors perform their own two-minute routine on any topic they want, cramming in as many puns as possible. These monologues are judged by a panel on originality, performance, and wit. "Punslingers," meanwhile, is a rapid-fire, head-to-head tournament in which punners exchange wordplay on randomly chosen topics as fast as possible. Each competitor gets a maximum of five seconds to think of their next pun, and whoever runs out or gets three strikes (attempted puns the judges deem invalid) first loses. The longest this particular event has ever lasted was a grueling 48 minutes of puns relating to numerical phrases like “three’s a crowd.”

5. ENGLISH IS A GREAT LANGUAGE FOR PUNS.

English speakers already have a leg up when it comes to puns. For one thing, it’s got a whole lot of words. The Oxford English Dictionary estimates that there are around a quarter of a million distinct words in the English language. English has borrowed words from so many languages that there are a wide variety of potential puns that wouldn’t otherwise be available, like “soirees” and “sore eyes.”

English also doesn’t have declensions, so the endings of words don’t change based on what part of the sentence they’re in. “The apple” stays the same whether it’s a direct object or the subject of a sentence, in other words, which is not the case for languages like German or Russian. (English uses word order to convey the difference instead.) So “saw” can be both a verb or a noun, no matter where in the sentence it falls. As in, “The blind carpenter picked up his hammer and saw.”

6. SHAKESPEARE LOVED POOP PUNS.

If anyone knew how great English can be for puns, it was Shakespeare. “Never mistake the Bard for someone above poop and fart jokes,” Berkowitz writes. “When Thersites of Troilus and Cressida says, ‘But yet you look not well upon him; for, whomsoever you take him to be, he is Ajax,’ it’s not just because a character is named ‘Ajax,’ but because ‘a jakes’ meant a public toilet back then.” The greatest writer in the English language, indeed.

7. FOX’S BOB’S BURGERS HAS A PUN QUOTA.

The writers of the animated series Bob’s Burgers regularly go through their own kind of mini pun competition in order to craft a series that’s unusually dedicated to puns.

That's because there are at least three points in each episode that involve puns. In the title sequence, there is always a rotating series of stores located next to the show’s titular family restaurant. These plausible companies always have punny names like I’d Hit That (a boxing gym) or That’s Improv-able Improv Theater. Later in the credits, an exterminator van always pulls up in front of the restaurant bearing a punny name like Last of the Mousehicans. And then there’s the ever-popular Burger of the Day feature, which has spawned an entire cookbook full of recipes for burgers with pun names like “Shoot-Out at the OK-ra Corral Burger (comes with Fried Okra).” To populate each episode with these running gags, the show’s writers have to include three or four pun options for each when putting together a script. Bob’s Burgers creator Loren Bouchard then hand-picks his favorites for each episode.

8. WANT TO BE A PUN CHAMPION? TRY IMPROV.

All of the winners of the O. Henry Pun-Off in the past decade have had one thing in common: a background in improv. Improv performers are used to coming up with ideas on the fly in front of an audience, and in the training process, they get extremely comfortable failing spectacularly.

They’re comfortable opening their mouths without having a good idea of what’s going to come out. As one improv-trained punster told Berkowitz, “if you get an improviser up there, they’ll be, like, ‘Well, I can just start talking and I don’t know what I’m gonna say but I’ll get there.’”

9. FOR THE BRAIN, PUNNING IS LIKE TANGLING CHRISTMAS LIGHTS.

What’s going on in your head when you’re thinking up a pun? Salvatore Attardo, an expert on the linguistics of humor, described it this way:

"A good way of representing what’s in the brain is to think of it as strings of lights on a Christmas tree. So you have one string that’s white, and those lights are all the associations of meaning. If you have ‘dog,’ you have ‘puppy’ and ‘bitch’ and all the words that are related to dogs. So that’s one string, but then you’re going to have another string that’s red and it’s ‘fog,’ ‘bog,’ ‘log’—all the associations on the sound and all the sounds that begin the same way. What is happening when you make a pun is that you’re kind of crossing the strings of lights."

So even if a certain pun feels like low-hanging conversational fruit, it's actually a pretty complicated neurological process.

10. IT’S REALLY, REALLY HARD TO TEACH A COMPUTER TO PUN.

A computer won’t be entering the O. Henry anytime soon. Software engineer Max Parke attempted to overcome this challenge by building the Punerator, a computer program designed to replicate the very human act of punning. Parke fed the program a rhyming dictionary and a data set of synonyms, antonyms, homonyms, and phrases, hoping to one day be able to get the machine to reverse engineer the pun “Iran so far away.” The process of combining words to make longer words, to turn verbs into nouns, to use words in ways that are counter to their intended meaning, was just too complicated for the algorithm. Even the best artificial intelligence is no match for a competitive punner, or even a totally average one. It’s a skill that—for now—is uniquely human.

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