:: Article

Excerpt: Vulgar Tongues

By Max Décharné.


A Hot Squat on the Barbeque Stool
(taken from Vulgar Tongues, 2016)

Gaols have always loomed large in the mind and language of criminals. Appropriately enough, perhaps the oldest slang term for a prison derives its name from a real institution – London’s the Clink, on the southern bank of the Thames, which entertained numerous malefactors from the 12th century up until its destruction in the Gordon Riots of 1780. The city’s gaols had a rough time during that uprising, and among the others burnt down during a week of mayhem was the King’s Bench prison. Standing near the present site of Waterloo Station, its formidable walls were topped with iron spiked defences known colloquially as Lord Mansfield’s teeth, after the then Lord Chief Justice.

Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) listed other slang names for prison which were in use at that time, such as the iron doublet, the sheriff’s hotel, lob’s pound, the boarding school, limbo, the repository and the spring-ankle warehouse. He also recorded that such a building was called a queer ken, and defined queer birds as ‘rogues relieved from prison, and returned to their old trade’, a usage which survived virtually intact into the 20th century, as in the classic 1936 London underworld novel The Gilt Kid by James Curtis. In the novel, prison warders are known as screws – a term also familiar in America at least thirty years earlier – yet this also carries its older meaning of burglary, as when an ex-convict encounters an old friend in the street, saying ‘I got nicked for screwing’. It had no sexual connotations, and nor did another deceptively familiar phrase which occurs later in the same conversation, where to have it off is to commit a robbery:

‘Had it off, since you come out?’

‘For God’s sake, Curly pal, give us a chance. I’ve only been out just under a week.’

Curly nodded and took another pull on his beer. ‘I had it off last week,’ he said with a wink…

Of course, anyone now using such language in a television costume drama would draw unintentional laughs from today’s audience – however historically accurate it may be – yet conversely, the BBC TV series Peaky Blinders felt able to have a 1920s Birmingham character remark that ‘if the cops find us, we’re screwed’, despite the fact that the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest written example of screwed meaning in trouble dates only from 1955.

Other American terms for prison include storage, the pen, the calaboose, the can, the iron bungalow, pokey, the refrigerator and the cooler, while a women’s prison was a hen pen. A fine old London word for a gaol shows up in A. J. La Bern’s superb novel of low life in the capital, It Always Rains on Sunday (1945), in which it is said of East End villain Tommy Swann, ‘He joined up with the Notting Hill boys, some of whom he had met in chokey.’

Satirical references to the supposed luxuriousness or educational benefits of this kind of establishment were inherent in the names county hotel and stone college, where lucky individuals might be said to be enjoying breakfast uptown. In America, Sing Sing prison has long been the big house (or the big house up the river, denoting its location in relation to New York City), a name which itself echoes the British 19th-century habit of referring to the local workhouse as the big house. The name Sing Sing is of Native American origin, and translates, appropriately enough, as ‘stone upon stone’.

Somehow, nothing seems to have stirred the slang imagination of the underworld quite like that frequently unreliable piece of hardware, the electric chair. An invention of the late 1880s, which became known variously as the sizzler, the waffle iron, the barbecue stool, the hot seat or the hot squat, was first used for a spectacularly botched execution in 1890, in New York. The following year, an electric chair was first used at Sing Sing prison, and it eventually acquired a nickname, Old Sparky, which sounds more like a lovable character in a children’s book than a repellent and inefficient machine for frying people. Other electric chairs in a fair number of states, including Kentucky, South Carolina and Pennsylvania, were also given this name.

Such conformity looks a little uninspired, given that there never seems to have been a shortage of slang words for the device, most of them deriving from the same strain of pitch-black gallows humour. Dashiell Hammett used one in his novel The Glass Key (1931), when a character sarcastically asks another, ‘Is there anything you haven’t been through before? Ever been given the electric cure?’ Other common ways of expressing such a fate included saying that someone has a date with the fireless cooker, is due for a juice jolt, or – in an ironic nod to electric hair tongs – they’re going to give him a permanent wave. Alternatively, sometimes old hands might just simply say, ‘He’s gonna sit in the old rocking chair up at Sing Sing.’


Max Décharné is an author, songwriter and musician. He has recorded numerous albums and singles, and eight John Peel Sessions as the singer with The Flaming Stars. A regular contributor to Mojo magazine since 1998, his books include Hardboiled Hollywood, King’s Road, the jive-talk dictionary Straight From The Fridge, Dad, and A Rocket in my Pocket, a history of rockabilly music (Serpent’s Tail 2010) as well as the 2016 work Vulgar Tongues – An Alternative History of English Slang.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, November 15th, 2016.