Cultural Caviar

Jug Jargon

November 25, 2017

Multiple Pages
Jug Jargon

One of the pleasures of working as a prison doctor was to learn the language of prison. It was often colorful and expressive, and it changed rapidly, sometimes because of technological change.

For example, when I started working in prison I was sometimes called to attend a prisoner who had just been PP9’d. A PP9 was a large, squarish battery that was used (in respectable circles) to power transistor radios; but in prison it was sometimes put in a sock and swung round like the bola of an Argentinean gaucho, inflicting quite serious injury on the head of the person at whom it was aimed. Such batteries soon became technologically redundant, however, and the verb went out with them. No one is PP9’d these days. I suppose that is progress.

Another verb in common use when I started was twock. To twock was to Take Without Owner’s Consent, that is to say to steal a car. This was a verb in use outside prison, too, as in, for example, “My car’s just been twocked.”

Twock was a noun as well as a verb. “I’m in for twock,” a prisoner would say, in reply to the question of why he was in prison. Another related offense, less commonly used in the form of a verb, was tada: “I’m in for tada,” that is to say Taking and Driving Away. I never really discovered the difference between twock and tada, which I presumed was subtle, if it existed at all.

“No one is PP9’d these days. I suppose that is progress.”

The black aspirin was the prison officer’s boot, used to subdue the recalcitrant, and the liquid cosh was a suspension of chlorpromazine, a powerful tranquilizer used sometimes for reasons that were not strictly medical. The officers ceased to wear boots and chlorpromazine was more or less banned. Some of the prisoners missed it.

The tradition of tramlining persisted, however. Someone was tramlined when his face was slashed by the plastic handle of a toothbrush into which two parallel razor blades had been melted. It was impossible to sew the resulting injury up neatly, which meant that the victim was scarred for life.

Prisoners, according to the officers, could be lippy, mouthy, or verbal. Lippy was when they answered back insolently, more or less with repartee; mouthy was when they shouted cruder abuse at greater length; verbal was when they spouted nonsense, quite possibly as a result of psychiatric disorder.

“Shall I bring the body in, sir?” an officer would ask me. The body was the patient. “He’s on the Rule.”

The Rule was Rule 45, later Rule 43, that is to say the prison rule by which a prisoner could ask for protection from other prisoners if he felt himself to be in danger from them. He was placed on a separate wing from all the other prisoners; most of the prisoners on the Rule, but not quite all, were nonces, that is to say sex offenders. Others were, or were believed by other prisoners, to be grasses, that is to say informers.

The problem with going on the Rule was that, once you were on it, you were, in effect, always on it, for the rest of your prison career. If you came back to prison ten years after your release, though no one actually remembered you in person, it would somehow get about that you had once been on it and you would be assumed to be a sex offender and therefore the legitimate target of attack. Moreover, many of the areas from which the prisoners came were in effect extensions of the prison, but prison without warders (the worst kind); and the news that you had been on the Rule would follow you there when you were released. That too would make you the legitimate object of attack, according to the prevailing morality. Being on the Rule was therefore in effect a life sentence, irrespective of what you had done. Incidentally, there was no such thing as innocence of sex offenses: You were guilty if charged and even if acquitted.

Some of the prisoners would ask me anxiously, “You’re not going to nut me off, doctor, are you?” By nutting them off, they meant sending them to psychiatric hospital, a fate they regarded as being far worse than mere imprisonment. And I think they were right: On the whole they were better treated in prison than in hospital. For one thing, the food was better; and for another, the prison officers were often kinder than the nurses.

Quite a number of the prisoners preferred being in the prison to being at liberty, at least for a time. “There’s nothing for me on the out,” they would say. On the other hand, they feared to be lifed off, as they put it; that is to say, to be given a life sentence, as in “The judge just lifed me off.”

The drug addicts had their special argot, of course. The name for heroin changed regularly, but generally prisoners would say, “I’m on the brown.” A day after their arrival in prison they would say, “I’m doing me cluck” or “I’m clucking,” meaning that they were going cold turkey, that is to say experiencing withdrawal symptoms, among which were the piloerection that gave the special appearance to their skin.

“Don’t you mean you’re gobbling?” one of my pedantic colleagues would ask them. “Turkeys gobble; chickens cluck.”

Of course, the addicts exaggerated their symptoms greatly. I refused to use their argot. When they said, “I shot up,” I always said, “You mean you injected yourself.”

The acme of prison wisdom as relayed by an old lag to a first-timer was to “get your head down and do your bird,” that is to serve your time without causing any difficulties or making a fuss.

Almost certainly, prison argot has changed since I retired. One of my favorite reference works is Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of the Underworld, British & American: Being the Vocabularies of Crooks, Criminals, Racketeers, Beggars and Tramps, Convicts, the Commercial Underworld, the Drug Traffic, the White Slave Traffic, Spivs. It was published in 1950 and is a work of immense and even intimidating erudition, especially when one considers that it was only one of its author’s many such dictionaries (it is 804 pages long). What is striking about it is that so few among its entries are in current use; and furthermore a word as universally used in British prisons and slums as nonce (for sex offender) was then unknown. Even bird in its precise current usage was then unknown.

But in language, as in life, nothing is gained without loss, nothing added without subtraction. In 1950, “shirt rabbits” were lice; a “wooden kimono” was a coffin; “yellow peril” was prison vegetable soup. Ah, the world we have lost!

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