Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Warders, Plods and Grassing: British law enforcement jargon

In the "You learn something new every day" department, most everybody knows that in England a "bobbie" is a policeman, but did you know that another common synonym for policeman is a "plod"?

Recently I've run across bits of UK law enforcement slang used in lieu of common American terms by British sources I've been reading. I had to look these terms up to figure out what they were talking about, so on the assumption others might not know them either, I thought I'd mention them:

"Grassing" in the UK means snitching, as it turns out, and a "supergrass" is the equivalent of American police calling an informant a "supersnitch." E.g., the BBC recently quoted a police expert declaring that "Grassing has always been a high-risk business. Why anybody would wish to do it nowadays is beyond me, yet they do." To have someone snitch on you is to be "grassed up."

Perhaps not surprisingly, whether you call them a grass or a snitch, informant use in the UK runs up against the same problems there as in the US. One police source told the BBC: "A lot of units turn a blind eye to these sources committing crimes. In fact they sometimes say to them, 'Just make sure you don't get caught'."

A "warder" in the UK is a prison guard. This one always trips me up reading news stories because my brain wants to transform the word into "warden," but a warder is not the head of a prison, just a regular C.O., in US lingo. (Incidentally, though in recent years Texas prison guards have been more likely than any of their US counterparts to be arrested, I've yet to see one of our TDCJ folks attempt anything as bold as what this British warder was planning, helping inmates escape prison vial helicopter in exchange for 5,000 pounds sterling.) This source adds that a "zombie" is a "particularly nasty prison officer - more dead than alive."

This is an especially flexible, context-driven term: To "nick" something means to steal it, to be "nicked" means you've been arrested, and to be "in the nick" means you're in jail or prison.

Perhaps Sunray's Wench or other British readers can supply additional terms or context in the comments.


Jock Coats said...

The "nick" is also the police station (precinct house?), where the "old bill" or "fuzz" (police) hang out.

"Chokey" is less used these days, but means prison/jail. And of course we have gaols...:) "Clink" means the same thing. "Stir" is British usage, though "stir-crazy" seems to be an American invention.

I've never heard anyone say "grasser" by the way. The noun is the same as the verb - "grass". Also, "warder" may be the correct term (it just means "guard" and needn't be a prison officer - you have castle warders for example) but I think more commonly they are now known more prosaically as "prison officers".

In Northern Ireland, especially the nationalist community, you might also hear the police still called "peelers" as they were first known after the Prime Minister Robert Peel (also where "bobbies" come from) who set them up as a formal institution.

Anonymous said...

Interesting blog!

I've heard of "clink" used to mean jail in the US. Also, "Pokey" in the US rather than Chokey. Perhaps from the same source.

Anonymous said...

jock beat me to it with most of them, but our COs or warders are also commonly known as "screws" (which hubby thinks is hillarious!). Police are also sometimes called "Rossers", though I think its a more Northern term and I dont know where it comes from, and there was a children's television programme some years ago which had a PC Plod as one of the characters (our police are all PCs ~ Police Constables ~ or WPCs Women Police Constables ~ until they move up the ranks). One more common name for PCs is "pigs".

One other distinction we dont have like Americans do, is that all inmates are kept in prison ("inside", "sent down", "do time"). We dont have separate jails and prisons, but we do have bail hostels, remand centres and open prisons (which the very thought of would probably give many Texan Legislators a blue fit).