NMATES at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, Missouri, have compiled a new lexicon of prison slang. Slate's Leon Neyfakh writes about the project in his column "Put the Pumpkin in the Boat: A new dictionary of prison slang."
Conceived by St. Louis University English professor Paul Lynch, and carried out during classes at the center, the project began with an assigned reading: Simon Winchester's history of the OED, The Meaning of Everything. Then the inmates gathered slang terms, after which they winnowed out those not specifically limited to the Bonne Terre institution--so shank and the hole don't appear in their collection.
Mr. Neyfakh's SLATE column is an excellent account of collecting the argot of a specific, enclosed
community. He notes that Professor Lynch designed the project to be descriptive; the purpose of the OED assignment was to demonstrate 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."
A more general collection of prison argot, Mr. Neyfakh points out, was compiled by a branch of the Correctional Officers union, and is available online here: The Correctional Officer's Guide to Prison Slang.
Some terms featured in "Put the Pumpkin in the Boat":
- boat: bed
- Cadillac: a cup of coffee with cream and sugar
- dun-dun: dungeon, i.e., the isolation unit
- kite: a message sent by an inmate
- pumpkin: new arrival (wearing orange)
- 12/12: the date when an inmate will be free of prison and parole
- viking: a prisoner with poor personal hygiene
[The initial letter for this post comes from John Baret, An aluearie or triple dictionarie, 1574.]