Crime’s slang lexiconBy Mark Peters
Criminals have enriched English for centuries with vibrant, clever, often euphemistic slang terms. The insular world of criminals, the need to stay off the radar, and the disrespect for polite society make the perfect petri dish for slang.
Not coincidentally, the first window into criminal slang comes from the first slang dictionaries, published in the 16th century. British lexicographer Jonathon Green — editor of the largest English language slang dictionary, “Green’s Dictionary of Slang,” which will soon be available digitally — writes that these collections were “part of a general drive to research occupational vocabularies. Archery, cooking, needlework. . . crime. Which was of course the sexy one.”
As Green, who also wrote “Crooked Talk: Five Hundred Years of the Language of Crime,” puts it, the glossaries were usually touted as self-help guides: “If you knew the words, you were less likely to be conned/robbed/murdered.” They included everything from categories of criminal beggars (Abraham Men, Rufflers, Prigmen, Whipjacks, Upright Men) to types of loaded dice.
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Crime and slang go together like breaking and entering. Criminals are a community, and a defining feature of slang is that it’s the distinct vocabulary of a specific social group. This is why soldiers, college students, Internet communities, fans of TV shows, and other subgroups develop their own slang. Slang terms and expressions are like a verbal membership card. When it’s hard to know who to trust, such verbal markers have particular importance, proving you’re one of the gang. If you don’t know that collecting rent means extorting someone, maybe you’re a narc, a word for a snitch that was originally spelled nark in the 1800s before its spelling was influenced by narcotic.
It also helps to be covert. No criminal genius openly discusses plans for mayhem in language the po-po or 5-O (two terms for police) can easily understand. “It was a consciously created secret language,” Green said. Some euphemistic local terms reemerged in 2013 during the trial of Whitey Bulger. These included boiler, an innocent-sounding word for a stolen car.
Slang is disreputable, rude, and often obscene. Criminals are perfect candidates to coin words that reflect their disrespect for correctness and morality. Violating the niceties of English isn’t exactly a felony, but it pairs well with committing one.
Much criminal slang is too specific to be used elsewhere. Unless you’re going to hit a lick yourself — to use a current term for committing a robbery — there’s not much need to know or use that term. But some expressions have migrated into the general lexicon over the years. Green cites booze as a word that was first used among criminals around 1530 but caught on elsewhere.
More recent terms have gained currency from popular culture, since crime has long been a popular genre for books, movies, and TV. “The Godfather” and “The Wire,” have brought criminal slang to millions of noncriminal ears. Writers often seek slang lexicographers to give the shows an air of realism.
One subset of criminal slang is particularly prolific: drug slang. Just about every illegal drug has a few slang names, including heroin, cocaine, meth, and the increasingly legal marijuana.
Noticeably absent from most collections of criminal slang is something also absent from the popular imagination of crime: white-collar criminals. They have their own lingo, but it generally lacks the street-level flavor of slang. As Green says, “99 percent of slang comes from the bottom, the gutter even, up.” Just as our more privileged crooks tend to stay out of jail, they generally stay off the lexical radar, too.
Produced by Elaina Natario, Laura Colarusso, Heather Hopp-Bruce, Alex Kingsbury, Jeremy D. Goodwin, and Mary Creane