Criminologists have long noted the varied roles that criminal talk, defined herein as any form of verbal communication occurring between two or more parties, plays in the etiology and execution of crime. More specifically, talk among offenders functions as mechanisms by which offenders can build their personal and collective identities, identify other offenders, avoid detection, facilitate their crimes, and manage conflict. This article is a brief overview of the sparse criminological literature that has focused directly on criminal talk and also notes other work that has highlighted various functions of talk among offenders.
In studying criminal language during the first half of the 20th century, Maurer 1981 notes that just as conventional groupings of individuals sometimes create specialized languages, or jargon, criminals do likewise in the form of argots. Later, in an exploration of the worlds of pool hustlers, Polsky 2017 argues that these argots include terms for both everyday and crime-related objects, various types of persons, methods and techniques for committing crime, and offenders’ psychological states. Lerman 1967 argues that an understanding of criminal argots is important because these argots represent a form of symbolic deviance that is akin to behavioral deviance and, as such, their use can indicate a user’s membership in a criminal subculture. In other words, argot helps offenders form their self-identities as offenders and also proclaims these identities to other individuals. Later still, Mieczkowski 1986 argues that despite recognition of the presence of criminal argots and their importance, criminologists have paid little attention to how these argots influence criminals and their behavior. An examination of a professional thief in Sutherland 1989 is one of the few exceptions. Within it, Sutherland counters popular assumptions by arguing that criminals do not use argot to maintain secrecy when conversing in front of others but instead to maintain and bolster their feelings of group unity. This proposition was later echoed in Iglehart 1985 in an investigation of the functions of argot among African American, inner-city, heroin users. Similar results were also presented in Roth-Gordon 2009, an exploration of favela residents and criminals in Rio de Janeiro, and in Kiessling and Mous 2004, a study of urban youth languages in Africa. Likewise, studies of argot among prisoners, such as Einat and Einat 2000, have found that prisoners also use argot to establish and maintain prison subcultures. Others, like Sykes 2007, argue that argot among prisoners orders and classifies prison experience. Research among crack cocaine drug dealers in Jacobs 1999 demonstrates that criminals also use argot to distinguish police from co-offenders and thus avoid arrest.
Einat, Tomer, and Haim Einat. 2000. Inmate argot as an expression of prison subculture: The Israeli case. The Prison Journal 80:309–325.
Explores how argot among prisoners helps alleviate their feelings of rejection, facilitates their social interactions, and bolsters their identification with the prison subculture.
Iglehart, Austin S. 1985. Brickin’ it and going to the pan: Vernacular in the black inner-city heroin lifestyle. In Life with heroin: Voices from the inner city. Edited by Bill Hanson, George Beschner, James M. Walters, and Elliott Bovelle, 111–133. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.
Examines the various roles argot plays in the lives of African American, inner-city heroin users. Finds that these criminals use argot to gather information, build status, maintain group unity, and obtain illicit drugs.
Jacobs, Bruce A. 1999. Dealing crack: The social world of streetcorner selling. Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press.
In this work, Jacobs notes how active crack sellers attempt to reduce their chances of being detected by police by not selling to potential buyers who do not use proper argot when referring to drugs, money, or other transactional items and processes.
Kiessling, Roland, and Maarten Mous. 2004. Urban youth languages in Africa. Anthropological Linguistics 46:303–341.
Discusses how an argot once used exclusively by African prisoners has worked its way into discourse by urban dwellers and is used as a vehicle for identification and the maintenance of group identity.
Lerman, Paul. 1967. Argot, symbolic deviance and subcultural delinquency. American Sociological Review 32:209–224.
Suggests that argot is a mode of deviance in itself and thus uses participants’ knowledge of argot as an indicator of their participation in a deviant subculture. Finds that youth who use deviant argot with peers also tend to engage in more criminal behaviors than those that do not.
Maurer, David W. 1981. Language of the underworld. Edited by Allan W. Futrell and Charles B. Wordell. Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky.
A collection of Maurer’s articles on various types of criminal argots. Provides lists and detailed definitions of the argots of con men, forgers, marijuana addicts, moonshiners, and narcotic addicts, among others.
Mieczkowski, Thomas. 1986. Monroe in a Cadillac: Drug argot in Detroit. International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice 10:137–145.
Presents a brief argument for how argots play important roles in shaping criminals’ subcultural identities and offending behavior. Also argues that argots provide insight into the social perceptions, interactional techniques, and other attributes of subcultural members. Then provides a list and definitions of argot in Detroit drug subcultures.
Polsky, Ned. 2017. Hustlers, beats, and others. Oxford and New York: Routledge.
Includes a discussion of argot among pool hustlers and of argot in general. Argues that pool hustlers do not rely on argot for secrecy but instead as a means to affirm group membership. Notes that criminal argots are not exclusive to specific criminal groups. Also posits that the meaning of argot varies geographically and temporally.
Roth-Gordon, Jennifer. 2009. The language that came down the hill: Slang, crime, and citizenship in Rio de Janeiro. American Anthropologist 111:57–68.
Article focuses on the role of slang in demarcating citizenship categories but briefly mentions how Brazilian criminals use particular forms of slang to identify themselves and to build group unity.
Sutherland, Edwin H. 1989. The professional thief. Chicago: Midway.
Briefly notes that professional thieves use argot to identify other criminals but do not rely on it as a way to mask their conversations about crime-related matters from noncriminals.
Sykes, Gresham. 2007. The society of captives: A study of a maximum security prison. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.
Discusses how argot is a brief and manageable way for prisoners to discuss the experiences and social roles that are unique to prison settings. Provides definitions of the various “argot roles” inside prisons.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
- Active Offender Research
- Adverse Childhood Experiences
- Aging Prison Population, The
- Airport and Airline Security
- Alcohol and Drug Prohibition
- Alcohol Use, Policy and Crime
- Alt-Right Gangs and White Power Youth Groups
- Animals, Crimes Against
- Bail and Pretrial Detention
- Biosocial Criminology
- Black's Theory of Law and Social Control
- Blumstein, Alfred
- Boot Camps and Shock Incarceration Programs
- Burglary, Residential
- Capital Punishment
- Chicago School of Criminology, The
- Child Maltreatment
- Chinese Triad Society
- Civil Protection Orders
- Collateral Consequences of Felony Conviction and Imprisonm...
- Collective Efficacy
- Commercial and Bank Robbery
- Communicating Scientific Findings in the Courtroom
- Community Change and Crime
- Community Corrections
- Community Disadvantage and Crime
- Community-Based Justice Systems
- Comparative Criminal Justice Systems
- Confessions, False and Coerced
- Contextual Analysis of Crime
- Control Balance Theory
- Convict Criminology
- Corporate Crime
- Costs of Crime and Justice
- Courts, Problem-Solving
- Crime and Justice in Latin America
- Crime Control Policy
- Crime Control, Politics of
- Crime, (In)Security, and Islam
- Crime Prevention, Delinquency and
- Crime Prevention, Situational
- Crime Trends
- Crime Victims' Rights Movement
- Criminal Career Research
- Criminal Decision Making, Emotions in
- Criminal Justice Data Sources
- Criminal Justice Ethics
- Criminal Justice Reform, Politics of
- Criminal Justice System, Discretion in the
- Criminal Records
- Criminal Retaliation
- Criminal Talk
- Criminology and Political Science
- Criminology of Genocide, The
- Critical Criminology
- Cross-National Crime
- Cultural Criminology
- Cultural Theories
- Cycle of Violence
- Developmental and Life-Course Criminology
- Digital Piracy
- Driving and Traffic Offenses
- Drug Control
- Drug Trafficking, International
- Drugs and Crime
- Employee Theft
- Environmental Crime and Justice
- Experimental Criminology
- Family Violence
- Fear of Crime and Perceived Risk
- Felon Disenfranchisement
- Feminist Theories
- Feminist Victimization Theories
- Fencing and Stolen Goods Markets
- Firearms and Violence
- Forensic Science
- Gangs, Peers, and Co-offending
- Gender and Crime
- General Opportunity Victimization Theories
- Genetics, Environment, and Crime
- Green Criminology
- Harm Reduction and Risky Behaviors
- Hate Crime
- Hate Crime Legislation
- Healthcare Fraud
- Hirschi, Travis
- History of Crime in the United Kingdom
- History of Criminology
- History of Police
- Homicide Victimization
- Honor Cultures and Violence
- Hot Spots Policing
- Human Rights
- Human Trafficking
- Identity Theft
- Immigration, Crime, and Justice
- Incarceration, Mass
- Incarceration, Public Health Effects of
- Income Tax Evasion
- Institutional Anomie Theory
- Integrated Theory
- Interpersonal Violence, Historical Patterns of
- Intimate Partner Violence, Criminological Perspectives on
- Intimate Partner Violence, Police Responses to
- Investigation, Criminal
- Juvenile Delinquency
- Juvenile Justice System, The
- Kornhauser, Ruth Rosner
- Labeling Theory
- Labor Markets and Crime
- Land Use and Crime
- Lead and Crime
- LGBTQ Intimate Partner Violence
- Local Institutions and Neighborhood Crime
- Lombroso, Cesare
- Mandatory Minimum Sentencing
- Mapping and Spatial Analysis of Crime, The
- Mass Media, Crime, and Justice
- Measuring Crime
- Mediation and Dispute Resolution Programs
- Mental Health and Crime
- Meta-analysis in Criminology
- Middle-Class Crime and Criminality
- Money Laundering
- Motor Vehicle Theft
- Narrative Criminology
- National Deviancy Symposia, The
- Nature Versus Nurture
- Neighborhood Disorder
- Neutralization Theory
- New Penology, The
- Offender Decision-Making and Motivation
- Offense Specialization/Expertise
- Organized Crime
- Panel Methods in Criminology
- Peer Networks and Delinquency
- Performance Measurement and Accountability Systems
- Personality and Trait Theories of Crime
- Phenomenological Theories of Crime
- Police Administration
- Police Cooperation, International
- Police Effectiveness
- Police Militarization
- Police Misconduct
- Police, Race and the
- Police Use of Force
- Policing and Law Enforcement
- Policing, Community and Problem-Oriented
- Policing Cybercrime
- Policing, Evidence-Based
- Policing, Intelligence-Led
- Policing, Privatization of
- Policing, Proactive
- Policing, School
- Prison Education Exchange Programs
- Prison Gangs and Subculture
- Prison History
- Prison Labor
- Prisoner Reentry
- Prisons and Jails
- Procedural Justice
- Property Crime
- Prosecution and Courts
- Psychiatry, Psychology, and Crime: Historical and Current ...
- Psychology and Crime
- Public Criminology
- Public Opinion, Crime and Justice
- Public Order Crimes
- Public Social Control and Neighborhood Crime
- Punishment Justification and Goals
- Qualitative Methods in Criminology
- Queer Criminology
- Race, Ethnicity, Crime, and Justice
- Racial Threat Hypothesis
- Racial Profiling
- Rape and Sexual Assault
- Rape, Fear of
- Rational Choice Theories
- Religion and Crime
- Restorative Justice
- Risk Assessment
- Routine Activity Theories
- School Bullying
- School Crime and Violence
- Seasonality and Crime
- Self-Control, The General Theory:
- Self-Report Crime Surveys
- Sentencing Guidelines
- Sentencing Policy
- Sex Crimes
- Sex Offender Policies and Legislation
- Sex Trafficking
- Sexual Revictimization
- Situational Action Theory
- Snitching and Use of Criminal Informants
- Social and Intellectual Context of Criminology, The
- Social Construction of Crime, The
- Social Control of Tobacco Use
- Social Control Theory
- Social Disorganization
- Social Ecology of Crime
- Social Learning Theory
- Social Networks
- Social Threat and Social Control
- Solitary Confinement
- South Africa, Crime and Justice in
- Sport Mega-Events Security
- Stalking and Harassment
- State Crime
- State Dependence and Population Heterogeneity in Theories ...
- Strain Theories
- Street Code
- Street Robbery
- Substance Use and Abuse
- Surveillance, Public and Private
- Sutherland, Edwin H.
- Technology and the Criminal Justice System
- Technology, Criminal Use of
- Terrorism and Hate Crime
- Terrorism, Criminological Explanations for
- Testimony, Eyewitness
- Therapeutic Jurisprudence
- Trajectory Methods in Criminology
- Transnational Crime
- Urban Politics and Crime
- US War on Terrorism, Legal Perspectives on the
- Victimization, Adolescent
- Victimization, Biosocial Theories of
- Victimization Patterns and Trends
- Victimization, Repeat
- Victimization, Vicarious and Related Forms of Secondary Tr...
- Victim-Offender Overlap, The
- Violence Against Women
- Violence, Youth
- Violent Crime
- White-Collar Crime
- Wilson, James Q.
- Women, Girls, and Reentry
- Wrongful Conviction