The Tell-All of the Century: Snitching Slang

My latest column in the Malaysia Star.

In Howard Marks’ rollicking memoir of a life of crime, Mr Nice, he describes living as a fugitive from justice: “I was fully aware that any one of them could turn me in to the authorities at any time. I just big-headedly assumed that anyone who knew me liked me and wouldn’t do such a thing. I was too nice to be grassed.”

Tattling (tale-telling) is the sort of thing that rascals like Marks have to worry about, so it’s no surprise that the underworld has an abundance of synonyms for it.

To grass someone or to grass someone up means to report them and their activities to the police. While the expression is almost completely unknown in North America, in Britain and Australia no explanation is needed in the press and on televised police dramas.

There’s also a noun, grass, a person who tattles, and supergrass, someone who tattles so much that criminal empires crumble.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, grass is a shortening of grasshopper, which a hundred years ago was current rhyming slang for copper, meaning police.

However, it could also be rhyming slang for shopper, meaning a person who trades information to the police in exchange for favours. To shop someone to the police means to offer up evidence of their wrongdoing.

These expressions, too, are decidedly British and see little use in North America, except for copper, which has been permanently shortened there to cop.

Snout is yet another one unknown to most North Americans. Both as a verb and a noun, it is more or less the same as grass. It probably comes from the idea of sticking one’s nose – or snout – into someone else’s business. These slang uses of snout and grass come from the early 1920s and 1930s.

Snout, in turn, recalls snitch, yet another synonym for betraying someone to the authorities. Snitch once meant nose or a flick of the nose. To snitch on someone means to squeal or sing like a canary – to tell all dirt to devastating effect – though those latter two terms were probably more popular in black-and-white gangster movies than they ever were among real criminals.

More typically used in North America is nark, which was originally a Briticism dating from the mid-1800s but which has been used in the United States for at least a hundred years. In criminal circles, it especially applies to people who get benefits like leniency, money, news about competitors, etc, from telling tales to the police.

In schools, nark is not just the derogatory term for the kid who tells the teacher about the misbehaviour of classmates but the one who blabs a classmate’s embarrassing secret to the whole school.

However, the verb nark is a little more complex. In the United States, it has been reinforced by the word narc, which is a policeman or detective who specialises in narcotics crimes. Narc is a shortened form of narcotics, which means any illegal drugs, not just ones that make you drowsy. Both the C and K spellings are used interchangeably.

Nark and narc have been tangled up with movie and television plots in which a perp (short for “perpetrator”, a person accused of a crime) trades information about someone else’s drug crime in exchange for a lighter sentence or even for getting off scot-free.

(Scot is an archaic name for a type of payment similar to a tax, so if you’re scot-free, you are free from “paying” by way of punishment or other obligation.)

A word similar to nark is stool pigeon. At its earliest, a stool was a type of decoy used by bird-hunters. A life-like (or dead) bird is perched and then manipulated by a hidden hunter so that the bird seems alive. The intention is to draw real birds into believing there is easy prey to be had.

In modern use, it means a police informer, but it has historically been used to mean a decoy or person used as a front for a criminal operation. The metaphorical uses of stool pigeon to mean a person who is controlled by another seem to have first been used in the 1830s. Such a person is fronting – pretending to the criminals to be something they’re not – so that they can lure the criminals into a false sense of safety. Pigeon, stool, and stoolo are all synonymous variants.

Louse, snake and weasel are still more ways to call someone a nasty name for an informer, though they are also perfectly good general terms of abuse. Rat, too, though it is now a bit dated but oh-so-evocative.

Rat shares a connection with another informer, a ratfink, which in turn can be shortened to fink. Ratfink contains within all the loathing we feel for dark, scurrying creatures that thrive on our filth and are loathed even by the loathsome.

Posted February 20, 2008

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