The criminal’s alphabet

Across the pavement

To go across the pavement is criminal parlance for robbing banks and security vans. The Wembley Mob (a gang of bank robbers from the late 1960s and early 70s) pioneered the method of driving the getaway vehicle up on to the pavement outside a bank and blocking the entrance. They were known as a “crash-bang gang” – they would rely on the element of surprise by “crashing” the bank doors open and then firing a shotgun into the ceiling in order to elicit fear and compliance.


A weapon, as in April fool = tool. If a villain tells you he is going to sort you out with his April, don’t think: “Well, it’s only June now so I’ve got plenty of time.” It means they are going to get a weapon and intend to inflict serious injury on you.


An old-fashioned term for the prisoner who would run the black market on each prison wing. It dates back to the days when tobacco was the only currency in prison and whoever had access to large amounts of “snout” could virtually control their wing.

Battle taxi

Any police vehicle used to transport riot squad officers to an incident or protest; the name derives from the fact that the officers are hyped up and ready to face “the enemy”.

Bed and breakfast

A night in the punishment block before appearing in front of the governor for adjudication, or an overnight stay in any prison while en route to another one.


The practice of eluding payment for goods or services by making a quick getaway. These days, it is mostly the preserve of motorised bandits and car thieves, who will pull into a petrol station, fill their tank with fuel and then drive off without paying.

Bottle squad

An undercover squad dedicated to investigating and catching pickpockets, who mingle with crowds in railway stations and shopping centres and try to catch them in the act. It’s known as the bottle squad because of the criminal slang for working pickpockets, “on the bottle”, meaning to follow someone closely (rhyming slang: bottle and glass = arse; “be on someone’s arse”).

Budgie syndrome

What a lot of those who regularly use the prison gym seem to suffer from. It’s a disease that makes them pose or parade up and down in front of the full-length mirrors, preening and chirping at their own reflection. Every prison gym will have a large cohort of body-builders who act as though they are on Muscle Beach, grunting and stretching and working out, but always with one eye on themselves in the mirror.

Bujo/bag game

A Gypsy fortune-telling con that goes back at least 200 years. It involves convincing the mark that their money has been cursed. They are told to seal it in a cloth bag and bring it to the elder, or shaman, in order for it to be blessed and have the curse lifted. During the “blessing” the money is secretly removed from the bag and replaced with worthless paper or stones.

Charlie Big Spuds

The generic insult for anyone who walks around giving it the Barry (Barry McGuigan = big ’un = acting in a cocky way), a bully who may have a tendency to fold when confronted. It’s particularly used in prisons, where some criminals try to reinvent themselves. Other forms are Billy Big Bollocks or Jack the Biscuit.

Commy burgs

Commercial burglars, the people who will break into warehouses, shops or factories in their pursuit of ill-gotten gains. Commy burgs are unlikely to come across anyone during their crime, so theirs is seen as an entirely impersonal offfence, acquisitive rather than violent.


A slang term for the new breed of police officers who patrol on bicycles, particularly apt in the winter months, when they have to brave the bad weather.


Slang for prison tea. Made with one huge netting teabag in a copper boiler the size of the average family bath, weaker than a knock-kneed sparrow with emphysema and more bitter than a miser who has lost a penny down a bottomless well, prison tea is not for the faint-hearted.


A word dating from the 1920s for a burglar who can get into places even when they are “as tight as a drum”. Houses are sometimes referred to as “drums”, as in “I went up to his drum but he wasn’t in.” If someone in prison were to tell you he was in for “drumming”, you shouldn’t therefore assume that he’s a percussionist.


Another word for the police and comes from the fact that, when seen in the rear-view mirror of a vehicle, the “police” sign reads – ECILOP (“ekkylop”, which is shortened to ekky). Slang names for the police can be extremely localised and rarely heard beyond a specific manor or region. For example, in Streatham, south London, the police are known as “the shrubs” because Streatham police station is situated on Shrubbery Road.


An acronym (Fuck it, drive on) used by the police for any crime or offence they witness but deem unworthy of their attention.


Fuck the System is the common cry of the prisoner, and a common way of signing off jail mail to others in the same position. To British prisoners, “the system” is everything from straight society and the police to the courts and prison – one big mass which they believe is permanently against them.


An 18th-century criminal word for pistols, as in “I’d have been taken by the watchman if I’d not had my growlers with me.” Pistols were also known as barkers because of the noise they made when discharged. In those days, even burglars tended to carry at least one pistol: homeowners tended to dish out their own brand of justice when catching criminals in the act.

Have it up!

In the typical illegal street-trading team there will be the trader, the one who has the patter and does the selling, and the look-out, or “doggy’s” (doggy’s eye = spy). The doggy’s will hump the gear, help set up the pitch, then keep an eye out for police and trading standards officers. The warning cry of “Have it up!” means pack everything fast, the cops are coming. A cry of “Have it up!” on any criminal enterprise is cause for concern.

Hobbit shop

Almost every prison has a hobbit shop – a workshop where mind-numbing, repetitive work, such as putting washers on bolts or making prison brooms, can be undertaken for a wage of around 10p a day. Any prisoner with an ounce of self-respect will try to avoid the hobbit shop – only hobbits are happy to work there.

Hotplate hamster

A screw who wangles duty on the hotplate in order to eat prisoners’ rations rather than pay the price of a meal in the subsidised staff canteen.


This is an addition to police identification codes – the shorthand for a person’s national or racial origin; it is code for a “ginger male”.


If something is classed as Jekyll, it means it is false, a fake, not the real thing. It is second-level rhyming slang: Jekyll and Hyde = snide = fake.

Jiggling and scissoring

Jiggling can be used on older vehicles, using a car key (pretty much any one will do) in a fast up-and-down and side- to-side action to catch the tumblers in motion – give it a sharp twist when you get a bite. Scissoring is using a large pair of stainless-steel scissors: insert the point into the lock, wrench them up and down to break the tumblers, give them a quick twist, and the lock should spring open. It should take no more than a few seconds.

John Wayne

This is prison-issue toilet paper, because it is so very tough, just like the cowboys played by the actor.


Slang for a prison officer (kangaroo = screw). The word, is widely used in every prison in the country by cons.

Little fellas

A slang phrase for cigarette ends, the term is widely used in northern prisons, as in “Blimey, I’m dying for a smoke, you got any little fellas?”


Police acronym meaning “load of bollocks”, usually marked on forms and personal notebooks to indicate that the officer does not believe a word of what they are being told.


In prison moon is taken to mean “month”, as in “I see Jerry got three moon for that bit of work.”


A police acronym for “member of the public”, used as shorthand when filling in notebooks and reports. The police use many acronyms, and different forces often use their own local versions. MOP, however, is standard for the majority of, if not all, police forces.

Non-stimulant pack

This is issued to Mormons in the British prison system instead of the normal brew pack, which is given to those of all other religious denominations. It contains hot-chocolate powder and Ovaltine instead of teabags and coffee sachets. The packs are issued weekly in prison.

The other people

This term may be London specific, as I’ve never heard anyone from outside the Smoke using it. It’s a name for the police, as in “Don’t trust the geezer, I hear he’s been having a trade with the other people.”

The Out

This is how prisoners refer to the big world outside of the prison walls and fences, as in “I knew him on The Out”. The Out is where all prisoners long to be. And, yes, it should always have capital letters.


If someone tells you they are polo it means they have no money (rhyming slang: Polo mint = skint).


Probably from the Afrikaans kwaksalwer, meaning a “hawker of salve”, or somebody who sells medicines, this is a prison doctor. They are doctors, but not as you know them. Though it doesn’t apply to every one, in my own personal experience of more than three decades of imprisonment, the majority of prison doctors don’t really prioritise their bedside manner and are more interested in pleasing the governor than in easing pain or healing the sick. Most are prison officers who have taken a first aid course which entitles them to wear a white coat and work in the prison hospital, dispensing aspirin and plasters. They are not to be confused with real doctors.


Used between police officers, this stands for “Read the fucking log” – an instruction for officers to familiarise themselves with the log recording what has been going on before they come on duty.


This means someone who makes a living by stealing clothes from washing lines (as opposed to someone who steals only underwear and who is known as a “pervert”). This crime was particularly prevalent in the Victorian era, when cotton and linen sheets were a pretty lucrative lay (criminal specialism). These days, snow-droppers usually go for designer clothing. Although it can be a fairly profitable crime, it is still way down on the scale of serious theft and is practised mainly by kids and amateurs.

Touching dogs’ arses

The charge of stealing cars used to be called TDA (Taking and Driving Away a motor vehicle), and young criminals found it amusing to insult amateur car thieves by saying they were into touching dogs’ arses. Amateur car thieves steal cars just for the fun of it.


If you are going to commit any sort of crime, the minimum you are going to need in order to avoid detection, arrest and imprisonment is a decent pair of turtles (turtle doves = gloves).


Undies is youth slang for undercover police officers. Unfortunately, the laws of the UK do not include a defence of agent provocateur (as does the law in some countries), so if a police officer (undercover or in plain sight) incites a citizen to commit a crime there would be no defence for that citizen. Watch out for the undies!

Vegetable patch

Some prisons do not have a specific room for the communal television and so it is placed centrally on the wing and prisoners must bring their cell chairs to sit on. This spread of chairs is usually known as the vegetable patch because it’s where the “vegetables” (those who want to watch) sit. When a prisoner ends up in the vegetable patch they are classed as a cabbage or Cabbage Patch Kid (after the freaky-looking American dolls of the 1980s), or as a hobbit.

Whizzer/whiz mob

These slang terms for a pickpocket have largely fallen out of vogue since their heyday in the 1940s and 50s. Whiz mobs used to work the crowds at racecourses, picking pockets then blending into the throng. The origin of “whiz” is uncertain, but some people say it’s to do with the speed with which these criminals could dip a crowd.

You want some?

The battle cry that has led to violence outside every pub, club and football ground and on every prison landing. It means: “Would you like me to nut you or punch you in the face, ’cos I’m ready for action?” It’s a warning not to be ignored. The “some” mentioned in this phrase is violence.

You want some, or what?

Again, a possible precursor to violence, but this time with a get-out clause. The antagonist, while ready and willing to offer violence, may also be looking for a way out and be open to a bit of verbal being the end result – as long as the target is suitably contrite.


A zombie is what the police call an officer close to retirement and now merely going through the motions. It can also mean a lazy officer. Most police officers hate zombies with a passion, as they tend to make everyone else’s job harder.

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