We’ve used the term rat to refer to an informer since approximately 1910. Stool pigeon, which dates back to the 1840s, is also a popular choice, and these days, you might hear the term whistleblower, which dates back to 1970. But Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of the Underworld, published first in 1949 with a second edition in 1961, shows that in the Cant language of the underworld—which first appeared in Britain in the 16th century and the United States in the 18th—criminals have many more names for snitches. Here are some of them.
This term dates to the 1800s and meant “a thief who informs on his fellow rogues.” It came from the Hebrew word abaddon, meaning “a destroyer.”
2. and 3. Bark and Belch
Similar to the phrases to squeak and to squeal, bark, as defined by the 1889 glossary Police!, meant “to inform (to the police).” It was obsolete by 1930. Belch, meanwhile, meant “to inform on one’s accomplice in a crime” to “to inform on the location of a gambling den,” as in this example Partridge cited from around 1898: “The girl had been ‘picked up’ by the police and had then ‘belched’ on the place from which she had escaped.”
In the 1899 glossary Tramping with Tramps, Josiah Flynt wrote that a beefer is “one who squeals on, or gives away, a tramp or criminal.” By the 1930s, the word—which was American in origin—had moved from tramps to become slang for police and journalists, according to Partridge.
Lambs aren’t the only ones who do this. When informants bleat, they give information to the police. Partridge cited November 8, 1836’s The Individual: “Ven I’m corned, I can gammon a gentry cove, Come the fawney-rig, the figging-lay, and never vish to bleat.” The term was obsolete in Britain by 1890, but as of 1920 was a slang term in the U.S.
According to Henry Leverage’s “Dictionary of the Underworld” from Flynn’s magazine, blobber was an American term for an informer from early 1925.
A verb meaning “to blew it; to inform (to the police),” according to the H. Brandon’s 1839 book Poverty, Mendicity and Crime, and J.C. Hotten’s The Slang Dictionary from 1859. It was common slang by 1890, as noted in Farmer & Henley’s Slang and its Analogues.
8. and 9. Cabbage Hat and Cocked Hat
Cabbage hat and cocked hat were terms for an informer dating to around 1910 that were rhyming on rat, according to D.W. Mauer and Sidney J. Baker’s “‘Australian’ Rhyming Argot in the American Underworld,” which appeared in American Speech in October 1944.
A punny reference (of American origin) to Chrysler cars that meant “a squealer; a traitor; a coward,” according to Leverage’s “Dictionary of the Underworld.”
11. Come Copper
A 1905 term for someone who became an informer and gave information to the police. By the 1930s, coming copper referred to the actual giving of information.
12. and 13. Come it and Come it as Strong as a Horse
Come it (or coming it) dates back to 1812, and meant “to be an informer.” Come it strong meant “to do a thing vigorously,” and according to one 1823 source, “They say of a thief, who has turned evidence against his accomplices, that he is coming all he knows, or that he comes it as strong as a horse.”
As a noun, conk dates back to the early 1800s and meant “a thief who impeaches his accomplices; a spy; informer, or tell tale.” As a verb, it meant “to inform to the police,” and was often verbally called “conking it.” Conk was obsolete by 1900.
15. Dropper Man
An Australian term, circa 1910, for a habitual informer to the police. “A man that drops information; also, he causes men to 'drop' or 'fall' (be arrested),” noted Sidney J. Baker in 1945’s The Australian Language.
16. Finger Louse
This American term for an informer, which dates back to the 1930s, was derived from finger, meaning “to take the fingerprints of a person.”
17. Fizgig (or Fizzgig)
This slang term for an informer from around 1910 may have derived from fizgig, Australian for “fishing spear.” Partridge wrote that the word is “Often shorted to fiz(z) ... By contemptuous euphemism; not unrelated to thingamyjig.” Don’t confuse it with fiz, a term for a swindler.
18. and 19. Grass and Come Grass
A phrase used in reference to giving information to police from around 1910.
A 1934 American term meaning “one who turns State's evidence” because he has “turn[ed] sour on his confederates.”
22. Narking Dues
According to Partridge, this British phrase was “used when someone has been, or is, laying information with the police.” It appeared in 1896’s A Child of the Jago: “Presently, he said: ‘I bin put away this time . . .’ — ‘Wot?’ answered Bill, ‘narkin’ dues is it?’ — Josh nodded. — ’Oo done it then? ’Oo narked?” The phrase was obsolete by 1940, but the word nark lives on.
22., 23., and 24. Nose, To Nose, and Turn Nose
Nose was a 1789 word for a snitch; the phrases to nose or turn nose, both from around 1809, meant “to give evidence or inform.”
25. On the Erie
A 1933 term, American in origin, for someone who makes a living as an informant to the police: “That mug has always been on the Erie.” (This term can also mean “shut up! Someone is listening.”)
An incarcerated person who informs on other people in prison. Pigeon and stool pigeon were also terms for informers.
A British term for a king’s informer, dating back to 1735; it was obsolete by 1890.
An American term, circa 1925, that meant “to betray secrets.” It was similar to quack, a verb meaning “to inform to the police,” and quag, “unsafe, not reliable; not to be trusted.”
A noun from around 1915 that meant “the giving of information to police, especially by one criminal against another.” Partridge noted that by 1920, scream as a verb began to mean the same as to squeal. From 1915’s The Melody of Death: “‘I don’t want to hear any more about your conscience,’ said the [police] officer wearily. ‘Do you scream or don’t you?’” By 1925, the term had hopped across the pond from England to the United States.
30. Snake in the Grass
An American term for an informer who concealed his informing, circa 1925.
”A confusion of snitch and snilch,” according to Partridge, this American term meant “to inform to the police.” It first popped up in 1859 and was obsolete by 1920.
An Australian term, circa 1899, for a spy or informer. Like snickle, it fell out of use by 1920.
33. Turn Chirp
Turn chirp was a British term from 1846 for turning the king’s evidence that came from G.W.M. Reynolds’s “The Thieves’ Alphabet,” in The Mysteries of London: “N was for a Nose that turned chirp on his pal.” Partridge wondered: “Does it exist elsewhere?”
35. Weak Sister
This term dates back to 1924, and it didn’t just mean “an informer,” but also “an untrusted person, or a weakling, in a gang.”
A version of this story ran in 2014; it has been updated for 2023.