Why are prisoners called lags?

Why are prisoners called lags in the UK

Why are prisoners called lags?

Why Are Prisoners Called “Lags”? Unraveling the Mystery of Prison Slang

The intricate tapestry of language inside prison walls is a combination of history, culture, and necessity. Prison slang is a unique argot used predominantly by criminals and detainees in correctional facilities. As a form of anti-language, many of its terms pertain to criminal behavior, incarcerated life, and various inmate types. This lexicon varies by institution, region, and even country. Besides spoken communication, one can encounter prison slang in written formats such as letters, diaries, tattoos, and even in songs and poems. A prime example of this prison vernacular that has captured many people’s interest is the term “lags” for prisoners.

Why are prisoners called lags UK
2 why prison guards officers are called screws

Why are prisoners called lags?

Historical Evolution and Significance

A dive into the annals of history reveals that prison slang is not a new phenomenon. During Charles Dickens’ era, it was referred to as “thieves’ cant.” Over time, some terms from this slang have seamlessly transitioned into mainstream language – “snitch”, “narc”, and “ducking” are just a few. However, others like “slammer” and “bull-derm” have faded into obsolescence.

The term “lag” carries an intriguing historical connotation. In the 16th century, ‘to lag’ was a verb meaning ‘to steal’. This might have contributed to its eventual adoption for referring to prisoners or habitual criminals. However, the exact origins remain ambiguous, as the Oxford English Dictionary only acknowledges the uses of ‘lag’ in the contexts of imprisonment and hardened criminals, without pinpointing its precise derivation.

Regional Nuances and Studies

It’s essential to understand that prison slang, akin to other dialects, can vary significantly by region. The term “to cart,” which means transferring to another prison, has been employed in Glasgow since 1733.

Why are prisoners called lags?

Renowned researchers have undertaken extensive studies to understand this fascinating linguistic phenomenon. Bert Little, Ph.D., conducted a two-year study focusing primarily on American English slang, particularly in the Southeast U.S. coastal plain region. His exhaustive glossary, published by The Trustees of Indiana University, lists common prison slang terms in the region. Meanwhile, research by Alicja Dziedzic-Rawska from the Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Poland portrays prison slang as “rich and creative”, with new terms emerging regularly. Often, these terms serve as security mechanisms to prevent unauthorized parties from intercepting specific messages, and in certain cases, they can even ensure an inmate’s survival.

Understanding the Term ‘Lag’

The word “lag” in general English has multiple connotations. It can denote a delay, a condition of staying behind, or even the act of lagging. In the realm of golf, a “lag putt” is a long putt intended to make the ball stop near the hole. However, in the British prison slang context, “lag” assumes distinct meanings. It can refer to someone who’s been transported for a crime, a convict, an ex-convict, or even a jail sentence.


Understanding the term “lags” and its association with prisoners offers a glimpse into the rich and varied world of prison slang. This linguistic journey reveals the depth and complexity of language used within prison walls, influenced by history, culture, and the innate human need to communicate.

UK Lag Prisoners