11 Old Timey Criminal Slang Terms for the Police

"Who are you calling a beak runner?!"
"Who are you calling a beak runner?!"
C.M. Bell // Library of Congress

Slang Terms for Police

Criminals have been referring to police as pigs since at least 1811. But just as they came up with many creative names for the people who ratted them out, crooks also called cops and private detectives by many other, more creative names. Here are a few of them from Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of the Underworld.

1. Beak Runner

A term circa 1789 for a policeman who is running down, or finding information about, criminals. It was obsolete by 1870.

2. Cannon-Shooter

According to Henry Leverage's "Dictionary of the Underworld," which appeared in a 1925 issue of Flynn's, this term referred to a detective who looked for pickpockets.

3. Elephant Ears

"Popular report has it that he listens so often, so long, so hard, that his ears grow to monstrous size," Partridge writes of this term for a policeman, which originated with a piece by J. Allen Dunn in the November 15, 1930 issue of Flynn's: "There's a couple of elephant ears ... spotting this joint."

4. Fuzz

Fuzz, referring to the police force, originated in America in 1929. A fuzzy, meanwhile, was a term from 1931 and referred to a policeman who was "very diligent in enforcing the law."

5. Lizzie Lice

A term from 1933 for policemen patrolling in cars. The singular form is Lizzie Lousie: "'A policeman who uses a smalle coupe in which to patrol his beat' ... that being a contemptuous term," Partridge writes.

6. Mitney

This 1910 term was "not very common," according to Partridge. "Perhaps, via a hypothetical mittery ... hands clapped by policemen on malefactors' shoulders."

7. Nabbing Cull

A 1781 term for a constable or officer of the law, from Ralph Tomlinson's parody, A Slang Pastoral:

”Will no blood-hunting foodpad, that hears me complain,
Stop the wind of that nabbing-cull, constable Payne?”

The term was obsolete by 1860.

8. Rat Bag

An Australian term, circa the 1930s, for a plainclothes detective.

9. Scorcher

Scorch is a 1925 term meaning "to arrest (someone)." A scorcher is the policeman or detective who does the arresting.

10. Tiggy

This term for a detective comes from Edwin Pugh's 1906 novel The Spoilers:

"It shows you ain't too anxious ... to be recognised by the tiggies, see?"

It also appears again in Pugh's 1914 book The Cockney at Home: Stories and Studies of London Life and Character; by 1918, it was low slang.

11. Wire Split

This term, used since 1930, referred to a detective of the pickpocket squad.

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What Is a Scuttlebutt, and Why Do We Like to Hear It?

Photo by Courtney Nuss on Unsplash

Casual conversation is home to a variety of prompts. You might ask someone how they’re doing, what’s new, or if they’ve done anything interesting recently. Sometimes, you can ask them what the scuttlebutt is. “What’s the scuttlebutt?” you’d say, for example, and then they’d reply with the solicited scuttlebutt.

We can easily infer that scuttlebutt is a slang term for information or maybe even gossip. But what exactly is scuttlebutt, and why did it become associated with idle water cooler talk?

According to Merriam-Webster, a scuttlebutt referred to a cask on sailing ships in the 1800s that contained drinking water for those on board. It was later used as the name of the drinking fountain found on a ship or in a Naval installation. The cask was known as a butt, while scuttle was taken from the French word escoutilles and means hatch or hole. A scuttlebutt was therefore a hatch in the cask.

Because sailors usually received orders from shouting supervisors, talking amongst themselves was discouraged. Since sailors could congregate around the fountain, it became a place to finally catch up and exchange gossip, making scuttlebutt synonymous with casual conversation. The scuttlebutt was really the only place to do it.

Nautical technology made the scuttlebutt obsolete, but the term endured, becoming a catch-all word for unfounded rumors.

The next time someone asks you what the scuttlebutt is, now you can tell them.

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