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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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Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What’s the Origin of Jack-O’-Lanterns?
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TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

The term "jack-o'-lantern" was first applied to people, not pumpkins. As far back as 1663, the term meant a man with a lantern, or a night watchman. Just a decade or so later, it began to be used to refer to the mysterious lights sometimes seen at night over bogs, swamps, and marshes.

These ghost lights—variously called  jack-o’-lanterns, hinkypunks, hobby lanterns, corpse candles, fairy lights, will-o'-the-wisps, and fool's fire—are created when gases from decomposing plant matter ignite as they come into contact with electricity or heat or as they oxidize. For centuries before this scientific explanation was known, people told stories to explain the mysterious lights. In Ireland, dating as far back as the 1500s, those stories often revolved around a guy named Jack.

LEGEND HAS IT

As the story goes, Stingy Jack—often described as a blacksmith—invited the devil to join him for a drink. Stingy Jack didn't want to pay for the drinks from his own pocket, and convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin that could be used to settle the tab. The devil did so, but Jack skipped out on the bill and kept the devil-coin in his pocket with a silver cross so that the devil couldn’t shift back to his original form. Jack eventually let the devil loose, but made him promise that he wouldn’t seek revenge on Jack, and wouldn’t claim his soul when he died.

Later, Jack irked the devil again by convincing him to climb up a tree to pick some fruit, then carved a cross in the trunk so that the devil couldn’t climb back down (apparently, the devil is a sucker). Jack freed him again, on the condition that the devil once again not take revenge and not claim Jack’s soul.

When Stingy Jack eventually died, God would not allow him into heaven, and the devil, keeping his word, rejected Jack’s soul at the gates of hell. Instead, the devil gave him a single burning coal to light his way and sent him off into the night to “find his own hell.” Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has supposedly been roaming the earth with it ever since. In Ireland, the ghost lights seen in the swamps were said to be Jack’s improvised lantern moving about as his restless soul wandered the countryside. He and the lights were dubbed "Jack of the Lantern," or "Jack O'Lantern."

OLD TALE, NEW TRADITIONS

The legend immigrated to the new world with the Irish, and it collided with another old world tradition and a new world crop. Making vegetable lanterns was a tradition of the British Isles, and carved-out turnips, beets, and potatoes were stuffed with coal, wood embers, or candles as impromptu lanterns to celebrate the fall harvest. As a prank, kids would sometimes wander off the road with a glowing veggie to trick their friends and travelers into thinking they were Stingy Jack or another lost soul. In America, pumpkins were easy enough to come by and good for carving, and got absorbed both into the carved lantern tradition and the associated prank. Over time, kids refined the prank and began carving crude faces into the pumpkins to kick up the fright factor and make the lanterns look like disembodied heads. By the mid-1800s, Stingy Jack’s nickname was applied to the prank pumpkin lanterns that echoed his own lamp, and the pumpkin jack-o’-lantern got its name.

Toward the end of the 19th century, jack-o’-lanterns went from just a trick to a standard seasonal decoration, including at a high-profile 1892 Halloween party hosted by the mayor of Atlanta. In one of the earliest instances of the jack-o’-lantern as Halloween decor, the mayor’s wife had several pumpkins—lit from within and carved with faces—placed around the party, ending Jack O’Lantern’s days of wandering, and beginning his yearly reign over America’s windowsills and front porches.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

 

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