Leon Neyfakh reports on a new dictionary of prison slang:
Before they set about compiling a dictionary of prison slang, the inmates at Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, Missouri, used words like viking (meaning a prisoner with poor personal hygiene) and Cadillac (meaning a cup of coffee with cream and sugar) without thinking about it too hard. But when a group of inmates put their private language under a microscope, they realized the way they use language reflects years of institutional history and serves as a unique window onto their experiences of prison life.
The dictionary—which I first heard about thanks to St. Louis Public Radio—came about as part of a prison education program operated by Saint Louis University and was conceived by English professor Paul Lynch, who volunteers at the Bonne Terre prison, a medium-/maximum-security facility. Inmates opted into the project by signing up for a class and worked on the dictionary with Lynch during two-hour sessions once a month.
Lynch said he introduced his students to the idea of creating their own dictionary by having them read part of Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything, a book about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. The idea, Lynch told me, was to show the inmates that a dictionary is not a book of rules but a description of language as it is used in real life at a particular moment in time. “The goal was to make the students see language as something more fluid and evolving than they’re probably accustomed to,” he said.
Step one was to distribute a bunch of index cards to everyone in the class and ask them to write down any words they used on a regular basis that they thought outsiders wouldn’t understand. Lynch asked that each word be accompanied by a definition and an example of how it might be used in a sentence; at the end of the exercise they had a master list of several hundred words. In order to make their task more manageable, they whittled the list down to about 60 words by identifying the ones that were most specific to life at Bonne Terre. That meant more generic terms like shank or the hole were discarded. “Anything that you learn from watching Shawshank Redemption we threw out,” as Lynch explained.
What happened next was essentially a series of classroom debates among inmates: about proper usage, what certain words really mean, and whether some were too outdated to be included. “Guys would get really worked up about it, in a very friendly and constructive way,” Lynch said.
These impassioned discussions revealed, among other things, the generational fault lines that divided the inmate population. There were certain words, Lynch said, that older guys knew that younger ones didn’t and vice versa. […]
The completed Bonne Terre dictionary now sits in the prison library. And while Lynch declined to share a copy of it with me, he did offer some of his favorite entries, which you can read below.
boat, n.: A plastic bed that is used when the prison is overcrowded.
pumpkin, n.: A term used for new arrivals at Bonne Terre because they wear orange jumpsuits instead of the gray and tan ones that inmates get after they’ve been processed. (The area where new inmates are processed is called the pumpkin patch.)
My first thought: What a great idea! My second: It’s too bad you have to go to prison to learn to see language as something fluid and evolving. (Well, that or read Languagehat. Or, you know, take a linguistics course, but who does that?) It’s too bad the dictionary isn’t available outside the prison, but maybe the idea will catch on and eventually a Dictionary of U.S. Prison Dialects will be published. (Thanks, Paul!)