Crooked Talk: Five Hundred Years Of The Language Of Crime by Jonathon Green (book review).

One thing that always fascinates us in our genre is the use of specialised words, hence the interest in Jonathon Green’s book, ‘Crooked Talk: Five Hundred Years Of The Language Of Crime’. Even SF novels set in this period have a criminal element, knowing these words, source and meaning can add any amount of authenticity into a story making it feel ‘right’. Even with made-up words in Science Fiction, one can derive meaning from their usage although, unlike the real thing, little is done to explain their origins. Having a copy of ‘Crooked Talk’ to hand, let alone reading it is therefore an essential book for any collection.


What was noticeable from a quick page flick was that the words were not so much in alphabetic order but in type of crime and age order so things can be seen in context and raised some surprises at words you would have thought were quite old were only last century. If you get completely lost, the 29 page index at the back of the book will enable you to find words quickly. These words also encompass American, Australian, Cockney and even the occasional Scots, German/Yiddish, Spanish and Romany usage as well, so you see their original meaning, source, variants and derivations. These kant/cant/jargon words were also part of the criminals’ way to disguise their activities from the law and had to evolve to keep ahead of them. It does raise a rather interesting question as to how so many became part of modern English as well, not to mention the lexicon the smarter criminals were using to create their vocabulary.

I’m going to pick out the occasional word here as to what surprised me about it. I’m capping them so they stand out better in a sentence although in usage, most are lower case. You’ve all heard the term ‘Bunco’ as the term for swindling from the film ‘The Sting’ but I bet you didn’t know it was sourced from the Spanish word ‘Banca’. To be ‘Wide’ or a ‘Wide-Boy’ means to be sharp. From ‘Graft’ corrupted to ‘Grift’ is to be light-fingered but not as a pick-pocket but more as a con-artist, hence being a ‘Grifter’ and also ‘Flim-Flam’. ‘Scam’ derives from ‘scheme’. Thinking on that one, it’s no wonder the non-criminal adopted some of these words because they held their meaning so well. You’ll also look at the ‘Mary Poppins’ film differently as ‘to fly a kite’ means to obtain credit against bills.

The Irish word ‘Fawney’ was where we get our ‘Phoney’ from for being fake. ‘Queer’ also meant to hoodwink long before it ever became associated with homosexuality. An accomplice or ‘Schill’ is also Irish, derived from a ‘Shillelagh’, which they would often hit the victim with.

One word that comes up frequently in British crime shows is calling a house a ‘Drum’. The mystery of why was solved with this book as criminals knock on the door to see if anyone is home before burglarising it. You would have to wonder why such knocking didn’t draw attention to their activities.

Something that I kept noted in my head was how many of these words have become surnames over the years. Although it might be akin to which came first, one could make the assumption that some became family names because of certain crimes associated with them.

Until now, I’d just assumed that a ‘Zoot-Suit’ was something super-heroes wore but it seems it was the original description for a New Orleans street gang’s attire and then as a prison uniform.

It’s hardly surprising the world’s oldest profession, prostitution, has an extra-ordinary long chapter of words, many associated with certain areas of cities like London. I often wondered why prostitutes are called ‘Toms’ and originally it was for those who hung around Mayfair, one of the most expensive areas of the capital. ‘Doing A Trick’ is actually sourced from Voodoo. Rather more amusingly from my point of view, a group of prostitutes can be called a ‘Stable’. I knew this vaguely but I really ought to find some way of playing around with this in my ‘Psi-Kicks’ stories. Oddly, although the term ‘John’ is used for the client there is no explanation of where it came from.

It should hardly be surprising that the slang for the police has varied over the years or that many terms were based off of fictional characters which just goes to show the effectiveness of the public mind. For those who wonder where ‘Copper’ comes from, it’s the metal of the badge the uniformed police wore, although it stuck more than the metal worn by the detective branches. The reason why the police have tolerated being called ‘Pigs’ is because its seen as derived from their mantra, ‘Pride, Integrity and Guts’. ‘Rozzers’, interestingly enough, is derived from Romany and meant villainy although applied to the police. Even odder is the ‘Hack’ which originally referred to the bailiff. The ‘Fuzz’ is a reference to pubic hair or ‘fuss’ oddly enough. There are stacks of words here and I’m only picking out the ones that are commonly used today in the UK. Those of you overseas will delight in American and Australian usage in an equal manner.

Someone who is a ‘Grass’ to the police comes from rhyming slang from ‘Shopper’ to ‘Grasshopper’ and yes ‘Shop’ in that context comes from it as well. Your ‘Stretch’ in prison is also rhyming slang from ‘Jack Ketch’, who really was a lousy hangman although equally it also came from ‘A Stretch Of Time’. I suspect even criminals liked a sense of irony. Speaking of prisons, I think this might be the only Hindi word here but prison as ‘Chokey’ derives from ‘Chauki’. More remarkable is the term ‘Joint’, although used as another name for prison was actually a slang for ‘Penis’, a piece of music and a range of drugs. It just goes to show how words stretch out in more ways than one.

If you ever wondered how ‘Snout’ was used for cigarettes, it was because when there was a time smoking was banned in prisons, the inmates would mask the smoke it by rubbing their nose.

‘Crooked Talk’ can be read as a straight through book or as reference and there is a lot to take in. Put into historical background, you can trace change or even why some terms are still used today. For those with a desire for future crime words, seeing how they developed in the first place puts things into context. For those who’ve looked at Eric Partridge’s book ‘A Dictionary Of Slang And Unconventional English’ but wanted something a little smaller to hand, then this book fills that gap rather well and with better context.

I’m still thinking about any words that he might have missed out which is always a good sign. I think what surprised me the most was just how many languages these words derive from and it’s not necessarily a cultural mix that got them adopted but they certainly stuck. Equally surprising is how few of these words are based off profanity and sexual words, although when you consider prostitution would probably mark that as their territory, it doesn’t neither. A demonstration of how words were twisted and bent into new meanings when required. As you can tell from the length of this review, I found this book fascinating and my knowledge widened. A good indictment that this book deserves time but not in prison to read.

GF Willmetts

April 2016

(pub: Arrow/Penguin/Random House. 394 page indexed small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 9.99 (UK), $21.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-099-54999-4)

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