Criminology Criminal Talk
Timothy Dickinson, Jessica Morales
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0251


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.

    DOI: 10.1177/0032885500080003005

    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.

    DOI: 10.2307/2091812

    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.

    DOI: 10.1080/01924036.1986.9688839

    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.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1433.2009.01077.x

    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.

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