The prison slang of The Shawshank Redemption
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption, the prison drama following the lives of prisoners Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) and Ellis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman). Overshadowed by Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction in the year of its release, the film has demonstrated an incredible staying power over the past two decades, with a consistent presence on cable television and a cult status in the home video world.
The film has also managed the feat of sitting at the top of IMDB’s user-voted Top 250 films list for several years now (occasionally trading places with The Godfather), by popular consensus demonstrating that it is one of the great films of all time.
Because the film is set in a prison and features a cast of convicts, we thought it might be worth looking at some of the colorful slang terms for prisons and prisoners.
In The Shawshank Redemption, Red (Morgan Freeman) observes in voiceover, “I’ve had some long nights in stir,” as he sits through a restless night. (For those in the know, I decline – even 20 years later – to drop a spoiler here.) While stir alone is a common synonym for prison, the term is also often found in the phrase in stir, as Red uses it. The use of stir dates from the mid-19th century, and gives us the adjective stir-crazy, which originally designated someone psychologically disturbed by a long imprisonment, but can also refer to a person struggling against physical or mental confinement.
The big house
According to Jonathon Green’s Dictionary of Slang, the term big house with reference to prisons has been around since the early-20th century. The term possibly descends from big house as applied to the workhouses of 19th-century London, in which the unemployed and destitute would receive food and lodging in exchange for work. Because of the work programs in place in some North American prisons, workhouse is still used today to refer to some prisons.
Before clink widely referred to any jail or cell, the Clink was actually a prison in the Southwark area of London from the 12th century until the late-18th century. While the etymology of the word is uncertain, both the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and Green’s Dictionary of Slang suggest that the origin is derived from the sense of clink meaning “to fasten securely” or “to clench, rivet, fix, or fasten with nails or rivets.” Green’s Dictionary further suggests that the word may be onomatopoeic, with reference to the sound of clinking chains or the sound of a door closing shut.
Named “la Isla de los Alcatraces” by Spanish naval officer Juan Manuel de Ayala for the pelicans that roosted there (alcatraz is archaic Spanish for pelican), Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay is home to what might be the most famous prison in the world. Thanks to appearances in film and television in particular, and a second life as a tourist attraction, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary has a special place in the popular imagination. Opened in 1933 and closed in 1963, the prison on Alcatraz housed some of the most notorious American criminals, including gangster Al Capone, James “Whitey” Bulger, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert Franklin Stroud (“The Birdman of Alcatraz”). The prison on Alcatraz became widely known as the Rock (also the Big Rock) because of its island location and appearance, and its reputation for being impervious to escape attempts. Besides Alcatraz, Green’s Dictionary of Slang also notes that several other prisons, including Rikers Island, New York City’s central jail complex, and Florida State Prison in Raiford, Florida, are also known as the Rock.
Up the river
Located on the Hudson River in Ossining, New York, Sing Sing Correctional Facility is another prison with a handy sobriquet – up the river. Sing Sing ended up with this nickname because once a criminal was convicted in New York City, he would literally be sent up the Hudson River to Ossining. With Sing Sing opening in 1825, Green’s Dictionary of Slang locates an instance of up the river as early as 1837. While we’re on the topic of going up the river, it’s worth looking at river travel in the other direction.
Down the river, especially in the phrase as to sell (someone) down the river, referred to the practice in slavery-era America of selling a slave to a plantation on the lower Mississippi River, which was considered to be the most difficult working conditions. Following that sense, selling (someone) down the river came to colloquially mean betraying someone, especially for one’s own benefit. Additionally, the phrase to send (someone) down the river can also mean to send someone to prison. So, whether up the river or down the river, it seems that river travel is something criminals would do best to avoid.
Other slang terms for penal institutions include the slammer, probably in the sense of slamming the door, rock pile, after the convict’s job of breaking stones, and hoosegow, an American English usage from the Spanish word juzgado, which means tribunal.
But besides slang for the prison, there is also slang for the prisoners themselves. In The Shawshank Redemption, when protagonist Andy Dufresne and other convicts first arrive at the prison, other prisoners refer to them as fresh fish. The OED dates the derogatory use of fish referring to a person as far back as the mid-18th century, and includes a citation for “fresh fish”, appropriately enough, from J. Harrie Banka’s 1872 memoir State Prison Life: “‘Fresh fish’ is the name applied to all newcomers.” The OED also lists stooge as a word referring to prison newcomers or first-time offenders.
Jailbirds and yardbirds
Besides fish, another common animal word for convicts is bird, especially in the forms jailbird and yardbird. Jailbird has been around since at least the early-17th century (gaol-birds back then), as an allusion to a caged bird. (Shawshank makes memorable use of this trope with the story of Jake, the pet crow kept by one of the prisoners.) Yardbird is a term of more recent vintage, first emerging during World War II to refer to new military recruits, who spent most of their time training in the yard. Following the war, the term seems to have spread to use in prisons, similarly referring to the prisoners, who would spend a great deal of time in the exercise yards. Today, yardbird is also associated with the seminal English blues-rock band The Yardbirds, noted for having had guitarists Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page as members.