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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
What’s the Origin of Jack-O’-Lanterns?
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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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Big Questions
Why Do Ghosts Say ‘Boo’?
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People have screamed "boo," or at least some version of it, to startle others since the mid-16th century. (One of the earliest examples documented by the Oxford English Dictionary appeared in that 1560s poetic thriller, Smyth Whych that Forged Hym a New Dame.) But ghosts? They’ve only been yowling "boo" for less than two centuries.

The etymology of boo is uncertain. The OED compares it with the Latin boare or the Greek βοᾶν, meaning to “cry aloud, roar, [or] shout.” Older dictionaries suggest it could be an onomatopoeia mimicking the lowing of a cow.

Whatever the origins, the word had a slightly different shade of meaning a few hundred years ago: Boo (or, in the olden days, bo or bu) was not used to frighten others but to assert your presence. Take the traditional Scottish proverb “He can’t say bo to a goose,” which for centuries has been a slick way to call somebody timid or sheepish. Or consider the 1565 story Smyth Whych that Forged Hym a New Dame, in which an overconfident blacksmith tries to hammer a woman back into her youth, and the main character demands of his dying experiment: “Speke now, let me se / and say ones bo!”

Or, as Donatello would put it: “Speak, damn you, speak!”

But boo became scarier with time. After all, as the OED notes, the word is phonetically suited “to produce a loud and startling sound.” And by 1738, Gilbert Crokatt was writing in Presbyterian Eloquence Display’d that, “Boo is a Word that's used in the North of Scotland to frighten crying children.”

(We’re not here to question 250-year-old Scottish parenting techniques, but over at Slate, Forrest Wickman raises a good point: Why would anybody want to frighten a child who is already crying?)

In 18th century Scotland, bo, boo, and bu would latch onto plenty of words describing things that went bump in the night. According to the Dictionary of the Scots Language, the term bu-kow applied to hobgoblins and “anything frightful,” such as scarecrows. The word bogey, for “evil one,” would evolve into bogeyman. And there’s bu-man, or boo-man, a terrifying goblin that haunted man:

Kings, counsellors, and princes fair,

As weel's the common ploughman,

Hae maist their pleasures mix'd wi' care,

An' dread some muckle boo-man.

It was only a matter of time until ghosts got lumped into this creepy “muckle boo-man” crowd.

Which is too bad. Before the early 1800s, ghosts were believed to be eloquent, sometimes charming, and very often literary speakers. The spirits that appeared in the works of the Greek playwrights Euripides and Seneca held the important job of reciting the play’s prologue. The apparitions in Shakespeare’s plays conversed in the same swaying iambic pentameter as the living. But by the mid-1800s, more literary ghosts apparently lost interest in speaking in complete sentences. Take this articulate exchange with a specter from an 1863 Punch and Judy script.

Ghost: Boo-o-o-oh!

Punch: A-a-a-ah!

Ghost: Boo-o-o-o-oh!

Punch: Oh dear ! oh dear ! It wants’t me!

Ghost:  Boo-o-o-o-oh!

It’s no surprise that boo’s popularity rose in the mid-19th century. This was the age of spiritualism, a widespread cultural obsession with paranormal phenomena that sent scores of people flocking to mediums and clairvoyants in hopes of communicating with the dead. Serious scientists were sending electrical shocks through the bodies of corpses to see if reanimating the dead was possible; readers were engrossed in terrifying Gothic fiction (think Frankenstein, Zastrozzi, and The Vampyre); British police departments were reporting a heightened number of ghost sightings as graveyards were plagued by “ghost impersonators,” hoaxsters who camped out in cemeteries covered in white robes and pale chalk. It’s probably no coincidence that ghosts began to develop their own vocabulary—limited as it may be—during a period when everybody was curious about the goings-on within the spirit realm.

It may also help that boo was Scottish. Many of our Halloween traditions, such as the carving of jack-o’-lanterns, were carried overseas by Celtic immigrants. Scotland was a great exporter of people in the middle of the 1800s, and perhaps it’s thanks to the Scots-Irish diaspora that boo became every ghost’s go-to greeting.

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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