Prison slang

English Cons will be entirely familiar with the nineteenth century American prison slang, since most of it is still in use in English gaols today. Presumably it was 'taken over' to the States by ex-cons from over here. They use words like 'screw' for example. This word comes from when turn-keys were responsible for turning the screw which made the Treadmill harder - they didn't have the Treadmill in the States. English words like 'stir' (much the same as 'porridge') were still in use in American prisons in the 1930s, though this began to be corrupted into 'stare'. What I find interesting is why we still have most of these very old words, and yet they've disappeared from use in US prisons.

Other indications of the fact these words originated here are words coming from cockney rhyming slang like 'Peter' for a safe or prison cell, a peter-man is a safecracker. Berkman uses 'Pete-man' for the same thing.

It's the same with criminal slang outside prison, for example 'copper' seems to have been in use in America until the 50s or 60s. Yet it's disappeared now. Maybe they just revise their slang more frequently.

Of course English prison and criminal slang is constantly being revised, as is the Scottish equivalent, but many old words never change - 'Screw' being an obvious one, a 'stiff' (a smuggled letter), which Berkman also uses, is another. MB