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Posted on 4 Jul 2024 in Crime Scene, Non-Fiction | 0 comments

BRUCE MOORE The 1972 Parramatta Jail Glossary. Reviewed by Linda Funnell

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Love a good word list? More than 50 years since it was first compiled, this glossary of prison slang is a fascinating window into the past.

In the early 1970s, two researchers for the yet-to-be-published Macquarie Dictionary, Sue Butler and Vanessa Mack, asked the inmates of Parramatta Jail to collect the words and expressions they used.

What they got were 11 typewritten pages containing 362 entries. Words and phrases from these entries were used as citation references in the Macquarie (first published in 1981), as well as in the Australian National Dictionary (1988 and 2016) and Gary Simes’ Dictionary of Australian Underworld Slang (1993). This is the first time the glossary has been published in its own right.

The names of prisoners who compiled it are unknown, but their work has been of lasting value, as Bruce Moore explains:

Many of the entries provide the earliest evidence for Australian words and phrases and for special Australian senses of more widely known words. For these reasons the material in the glossary is of great importance to the history of Australian English, and it should be in the public domain. This is the major rationale for this edition.

Aside from its interest to lexicographers, however, the glossary also provides a fascinating window into Sydney’s underworld at a particular moment time. It describes the features of life in prison – a harsh place of violence (‘stinks’), sex (‘cats’ and ‘hocks’), corrupt police and corruptible warders – and the crimes that might have brought a prisoner there:

bust: breaking and entering

barber: one who steals from residential premises without forcing entry

tankman: person who specialises in stealing from safes.

pussy-footer: sneak thief. (opportunist)

hoister: shoplifter

smother: block someone’s view. Your smother’s your best friend. Common saying among thieves.

This entry makes clear the prison hierarchy:

crim: professional thief. This term only applies to those who uphold criminal code. It is a mistake to think that anyone in gaol automatically qualifies.

Thus someone incarcerated for sex crimes (a ‘secko’), for example, or someone ‘cutting out’ parking fines would not fit this definition.

Then there are the strictures of prison life, such as:

boil up: make an illegal cup of tea in cell

A process which requires a:

Fat wick: strip of sheeting or like material spread with fat, rolled up, and lit for purposes of boiling up.

There is also wordplay and rhyming slang:

ginger ale: bail

half-inched: stolen [pinched]

he’s elephant’s: he’s drunk [elephant’s trunk]

musical milk: methylated spirits

lice ladders: sideburns

Rudolph Vaselino: One who falsely boasts of his exploits with women

As former editor of the Australian National Dictionary Bruce Moore brings formidable lexicographical expertise to this edition of the glossary, which includes his extended notes on the entries, giving instances of their use elsewhere, and at times expanding on their meaning, as here:

clean the books up: confess to numerous unsolved crimes.

Which he explains as:

The implication is that you confess to a number of crimes that you probably did not commit as part of a deal to get a lesser penalty for the crime you have been charged with. The police are satisfied as it looks as if they have solved the crimes. 

As you might expect, there are numerous unflattering references to police and their practices:

sugar bag: policeman who accepts bribes

sling: pay police for services rendered

straw bail: bail papers signed by a sugar bag on worthless surety

dollied: loaded with false material evidence

verballed: misrepresented by lies

There are multiple terms for prison itself, including ‘can’, ‘nick’ and ‘boob’, the latter leading to compounds such as ‘boob tea’, ‘boob tobacco’ (both considered inferior quality) and:

boob happy: eccentric. Divorced from reality. Brought about by the strain of jail routine. Similar to battle fatigue.

Then there is the black humour of:

bed and breakfast: seven days imprisonment

Seabreeze Hotel: Long Bay Gaol

The 1970s were a tumultuous time for NSW prisons. Prisoners were routinely bashed, corruption was rife, and prison activists had begun agitating for change. For brief periods prisoners who spoke out against conditions became folk heroes, such as Ray Denning, whose hero status was burnished by his daring escapes, taunting of police, and the publication of his prison diary in 1982 (it would later be irredeemably tarnished when he turned informer).

Riots broke out at Bathurst jail in 1970 and 1974, the latter culminating in prison officers firing on inmates. In 1976 the Nagle Royal Commission began its investigation into New South Wales prisons, and its report, handed down in 1978, revealed ‘brutality, incompetence and cover-up’ throughout the system.

Parramatta jail did not feature as extensively as some others in the Royal Commission report (Grafton and Bathurst jails received particular attention), but conditions were primitive. In Moore’s introductory chapters he gives some of the history of the jail – its first two iterations destroyed by fire, the third, the sandstone building that still exists, was built between 1835 and 1842. Moore includes diagrams of the original building and additions made in later decades.

In 1972 when the glossary was compiled, not all cells were sewered, so prisoners shared their cramped quarters with the ‘shit tub’, which had to be emptied each morning, and made its way into the jail argot: to do one’s time ‘on the shit tub’, according to the glossary, was to ‘serve sentence as easy as possible’.

Despite the ‘hardly salubrious’ conditions, as Moore calls them, he notes that there were cultural elements within the jail: a literary discussion group, a prison newspaper (Contact), a theatre group, and a debating society.

(In 1979 Gabrielle Carey, co-author of Puberty Blues, then working as a journalist, would visit Parramatta Jail to cover the debating society and end up falling in love with one of the inmates – the subject of her memoir Just Us, published in 1984.)

At the time the glossary was compiled, Parramatta Jail hosted the playwright and armed robber Jim McNeil, who wrote a number of plays about prison life, and Moore incorporates quotations from McNeil’s plays to illustrate how some of the words and expressions in the glossary were used, and to flesh out the picture of prison life.

This book is the first of the Australian National Dictionary’s Studies in the History of Australian English series. It is a remarkable conduit into the past, enhanced by Bruce Moore’s introductory material and his annotations to the entries themselves.

Bruce Moore The 1972 Parramatta Jail Glossary: An edition with commentary Australian Dictionary Publications 2024 PB 260pp $29.95

Linda Funnell is co-editor of the Newtown Review of Books.

You can buy The 1972 Parramatta Jail Glossary from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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