You Talkin’ to Me?: Criminal Language

What do you have to say for yourself, mister?
Criminal enterprises are dangerous, no, really, I heard that somewhere. The risks of the job, though, are part of the deal. Hardly a criminal would balk at the prospect of being arrested or facing a prison sentence. It’s a risk; always has been, always will be. The job itself isn’t the only risk, though. Criminals have a need to go about their work in secret, and the only thing worse than getting arrested on the job getting arrested before the job.

For that reason criminals have to hide what they’re about, but they still have to talk about it. Talking about a big heist or, worse, a plan to kill someone is a quick way to tip off the police. If the cops don’t outright arrest someone for planning a crime, you can bet they’ll take steps to make sure that the crime goes down in their favor, ending with thieves and other criminals behind bars, or even in body bags.

For hundreds of years it’s been necessary for criminals to communicate their business in a way that the police or other officials wouldn’t necessarily understand. In Shakespeare’s day, thieves used innocent language to disguise their true intentions. Originally called Thieves’ Cant, the language is about as old as the modern English language. It wouldn’t surprise me if the cant actually was quite a bit older, stretching back before Chaucer. The flavor of the language was so appealing that it made its way into plays and pamphlets.

Since those times, various elements of cant have survived, even if the original language itself has not. After all, it doesn’t do anyone any good if some writer jots down all the words and their meanings for the cops to look up in a dictionary. So the language of criminals is in constant flux, taking on new words and meanings throughout the ages, specifically to confound people in authority while lending an air of mystique and romance to the criminal element.

Perhaps the most colorful example of such coded language is found in Cockney rhyming slang, in which particular words are replaced by words or phrases that rhyme with them in order to hide the intended meaning. So mate becomes “china plate”; stairs becomes “apples and pears.” Throughout its history it has been used by locals just to confuse out-of-towners, by traders to conspire to make more bangers (bangers and mash = cash), and by more underhanded individuals so they didn’t have to resort to telling porkies (pork pies = lies) in broad daylight to cover up their illicit dealings.

Even today we can look at aspects of criminal life and come up with specific terms that euphemize and obfuscate the meaning. A getaway driver is a “wheelman,” stolen goods are referred to as “hot,” jewelry (particularly diamonds) targeted for theft is “ice.” The list goes on and on so that even systems of measure such as an ounce or kilo, or even a keeg (a pronounced name of the abbreviation for kilogram: kg) becomes language referring to drugs.

The specific words, which started as code substitutions, make their way into jargon-filled sentences that have no meaning to everyday people, but the people who know, the people the language was intended for, know exactly what it means to “hire a gunsel with a Chicago typewriter to plug a stoolie before the buzzers haul us to the big house.”

Criminal language really became a huge thing during the Prohibition era as it gave rise to truly organized crime. The criminal language exploded as more areas than ever were necessary. Now it was not only in the planning stages, but what happened after. You would need someone on the take to make the charges go away. Better yet, maybe the syndicate would send a mouthpiece who could pin the rap on a Patsy. The colorful language that was popular in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s made its way into many a gangster film with the likes of Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, and Humphrey Bogart, the men who embodied what it meant to be a “tough guy” whether they packed iron or not.

When it comes to criminals, it’s never quite right until you’ve got the lingo. So don’t be a scrub; get the low down before you end up doing a nickel in the hoosegow.


Andy Adams is an adjunct professor of English at various colleges in the Phoenix area. He has an affectation for fedoras as they complement his villainous goatee. He’s been known to poke his head onto Twitter @A3Writer, but he’s never been big into birds. He blogs at about writing, teaching, and the conquest of fictional worlds—they’re more fun than the real world.

Read all posts by Andy Adams for Criminal Element.

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