Discuss word origins and meanings.
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Post by Ken Greenwald » Tue Mar 18, 2008 3:56 am

[The following postings were recovered after being accidentally deleted and so are not in their usual separate posting format -- Forum Moderator]

Posted on: 17 Feb 2004 04:49

Not a rude question - just wondering how this word came to be used as a term for a prison officer (possibly only British usage).

Meirav Barkan (London - England)

Posted on: 17 Feb 2004 05:03

Meirav - I can offer you a number of interesting possibilities for the origin. But unfortunately, they are just speculation, I can't prove any of them.

That old favorite of medieval jailers, 'the screws' - thumbscrews. But I don't think it comes from this term as the the word screw meaning jailer isn't cited until 1812.

1812 P. Egan Boxiana 1st Ser. I. 122 Where flash has been pattered in all that native purity of style, and richness of eloquence, which would have startled a High Toby Gloque, and put a Jigger Screw [i.e. a prison warder] upon the alert.

Another remote possibility is the term 'to turn the screws' meaning to put pressure on someone or coerce someone to do something. Again it's use is far to early (1648-9) to be the ancestor of the term under discussion, although I do think this meaning grew out of the one above.

1849 Eikon Bas. xiv. 113 When Politicians most agitate desperate designs against all that is Religion, and Laws, which by such scrues are cunningly, yet forcibly wrested by secret steps..from their known rule and wonted practise.

In my opinion, the best bet is the slang use of the word 'screw' for a key. I assume this comes from the act of turning a key, somewhat like turning a screw into a piece of wood. The slang term is cited in 1795, which puts it into the right timeframe and gives it a good chance of being the term we are look for.

1795 Potter Dict. Cant (ed. 2), Screw, a false key.
1811 Lex. Balatron., Screw, a skeleton key... To stand on the screw signifies that a door is not bolted, but merely locked.
1812 J. H. Vaux Flash Dict., To screw a place is to enter it by false keys; this game is called the screw. Any robbery effected by such means is termed a screw.
1896 Westm. Gaz. 29 May 2/1 So the next night I borrows a bunch of screws–them’s skeleton keys–and an old jemmy.

As for it being a strictly English term, here's a citation from the New Yorker.

1977 New Yorker 24 Oct. 68/2 their keepers ‘guards’, ‘officers’,..‘screws’.

And I'm sure I remember it being used in some of the old Jimmy Cagney/Humphrey Bogart tough-guy movies of the 1940s.

Doug Gilbert (Chai Yi - Taiwan)

Posted on: 16 Mar 2008 04:08

'Screw' is thieves jargon for 'break into'. Fingers Malone opened the safe, Jimmy the Screw with his peter-cane or crowbar, rather than screwdriver, cracked a crib (house) via the window-sash. Later both 'Peter' and 'screw' came to have sexual meanings. Until about the '50's, if you will pardon indelicacy, one did not screw a woman, but screwed (broke and entered) her knickers.
Warders became the victim of the joke that they 'broke and entered' the prisoners' cells using their keys; hence they became called 'The Screws'.

John Barton, New Plymouth, New Zealand

Posted on: 16 Mar 2008 23:23

John, I found your above posting at best confusing and at worst off-base on how ‘warders’ (wardens, turnkeys, prison staff, etc.) became known as SCREWS.

I have no problem with your first two sentences: SCREW is thieves’ jargon for ‘break; Finger’s Malone was a famous safecracker, etc. However, your third sentence “Later both ‘Peter’ and ‘screw’ came to have sexual meanings” is ambiguous and it seems to me wrong. When you say ‘later’ what does that mean – later than what? SCREW, meaning ‘break into,’ was first recorded in 1812. SCREW, meaning copulation, was first recorded in 1725, so the ‘sex’ meaning certainly did not come ‘later’ than the ‘break in’ sense. However, PETER, meaning ‘penis’ was first recorded in 1870, so ‘later’ would apply here.

Your next sentence is interesting, but also appears to be wrong on one count and perhaps two counts. From the early 18th century to the early 19th century the sexual form of SCREW appeared in print and even in dictionaries (see quotes below). But from the early 19th century until the first part of the 20th century it was, indeed, taboo. But in the 1920s it began to again appear in print (see quotes below), although it still made some stuffy publications nervous until quite a bit later (although it didn’t make President Jimmy Carter nervous – e.g. see 1976 New York Times quote below). So I would say that your 1950s statement is technically wrong. As far as “screwed (broke and entered) her knickers,” I don’t know where you dug that one up – you didn’t tell us and I haven't been able to find it.

And finally, it is unclear where in time your conclusion “Warders became the victim of the joke that they 'broke and entered' the prisoners' cells using their keys; hence they became called 'The Screws'” is supposed to fit. It appears to me – the implication from the flow of your sentences – that you are saying that this occurred in the 1950s or later (utilizing your ‘breaking and entering,’ sex innuendo), which is clearly wrong. The expression SCREW for ‘jailer’ arose in the early 19th century (see 1812 quote).

The origin of SCREW, meaning prison officer, appears to be well-known and straightforward and I don't see that there is a great deal of mystery about it. It also seems to me that when you are taking a guess at the origin of a word or phrase, as you were here, especially when you give nothing whatsoever to support your claim (and when it is unclear even exactly what your claim is), you should preface your statements with such words as ‘I believe,’ ‘my theory is,’ etc. and not give it as a statement of fact, thus possibly disseminating false information, which is a no-no, on our beloved website. (>:)

Doug Gilbert had it correct (see his 2004 posting above) in one of his guesses. As early as 1795 SCREW was a slang expression for what was also known as a ‘false’ or ‘skeleton key.’ This screw became associated with the person who used these keys– the jailer, warden, warder, turnkey, prison staff (1812).


SCREW noun prison staff: Applied to a prison warder; from earlier sense, (skeleton) key, from warder’s locking and unlocking doors (compare Standard English turnkey, gaoler).


SCREW:The word is . . . slang for a prison warder, form the days when locks were operated with a screw-like movement.
<1795 “SCREW: a false key”—Dictionary of Cant by Potter

<1812 “Where flash has been pattered in all that native purity of style, and richness of eloquence, which would have startled a High Toby Gloque, and put a Jigger SCREW [i.e. a prison warder] upon the alert.”— Boxiana: Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism by P. Egan, 1st Series, I. page 122> [[flash is the cant or jargon of thieves, vagabonds, etc.]]

<1877 “The slang name for all the officials is ‘SCREWS.’”—Five Years of Penal Service, ii. page 77>

<1902 “Should there be a superfluity of ‘SCREWS’ (warders) on the spot . . . your door is opened and the regulation bun . . . is handed in.”—Chambers’s Journal, June, page 367/1>

<1930 “He is known as a hard- boiled ‘SCREW, ’ but is respected by all prisoners because he is on the ’up and up.’”—The Third Degree: A Detailed and Appalling Exposé of Police Brutality by E. H. Levine, page 226>

<1931 “SCREW noun: 1. A guard in a penitentiary. 2. A key.”—American Speech, Vol. 7, No. 2, December, page 114>

<1933 “The chief warder . . . All the SCREWS get their orders through him.”—Stir (edition 2) by G. Ingram, iii. page 52>

<1948 “A ‘bent SCREW’. . . a crooked warder who is prepared to traffic with a prisoner.”—Sunday Pictorial, 29 August, page 6/5>

<1970 “The lights never out, pervy SCREWS watching every movement.”—Sir, You Bastard by G. F. Newman, viii. page 223>

<1977 “Men . . . call their keepers ‘guards,’‘officers,’ . . . ‘screws.’”—New Yorker, 24 October, page 68/2>
(quotes from the Oxford English Dictionaryand archived sources)

As far as the sexual meaning of SCREW, it’s use as a noun and a verb dates back to 1725 and it was in use during the rest of the 18th century and into the 19th century. However, sometime in the 19th century it became a no-no and remained so until it resurfaced again in the 1920s:


SCREW coarse slang. 1) verb: a) intransitive. To copulate, have sexual intercourse (with a person). b) transitive. Usually of a man: to copulate with, have sexual intercourse with (someone). 2) noun: a) A prostitute; a woman considered in sexual terms; a (good, bad, etc.) sexual partner. b) An act of sexual intercourse, especially of a hasty and casual nature. Also figurative.
<1725 “To SCREW, to copulate with a Woman. . . . A SCREW, a strumpet, a common prostitute”—New Canting Dictionary>

<1796 “To SCREW, to copulate.”—Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (edition 3) by Francis Grose> [[Note: ‘Vulgar’ here means ‘common’ and not ‘crudely indecent.’]]

<1861 “‘There is nothing the matter with her, (meaning plaintiff,) only the boys (meaning certain boys in the neighborhood of the defendant) SCREWED her (the plaintiff meaning,) . . . then and thereby meaning it to be understood by said words, that the plaintiff had been and was guilty of whoredom . . .’”— Reports of Cases Argued in the Supreme Court of Judicature of the State of Indiana (1862) by B. Harrison, Vol. XVII. 5 December, page 246>

<1866 “Words Are Not Actionable Per Se which charge a married woman with seating herself upon the lap of a man not her husband, and insisting upon his ‘SCREWING her.’ The words clearly charge a desire to commit the act of adultery, but not the act. . . . Mrs. K. [the plaintiff S. K. meaning] sat in his lap, and wanted him [defendant meaning] to SCREW her [meaning thereby to have carnal intercourse with her].”—in The American Decisions: Containing the Cases of General Value and Authority Decided by the Courts of the Several States from the Earliest Issue of the State Reports to the Year 1869 (1887) by A. C. Freeman, Wisconsin (January, 1866), page 398>

<1927 “It is enough to mention his emulating a spider by SCREWING a woman while he killed her by biting and, put in as an extra, chewing her throat.”—in Holmes-Laski Letters (1953), by O. W. Holmes, Letter, 1 July, II, v. page 958>

<1929 “Here's a last flicker of the old cheap pride: the Post now pays the old whore $4000 a SCREW.”—Letters (1963), F. Scott Fitzgerald, page 307>

<1937 “Him . .. picking up bums in public dance halls and SCREWING them in hallways and taxicabs.”—Can all this Grandeur Perish by J. T. Farrell, page 147>

<1937 “SCREW, . . . .an act of copulation.”—A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English by Eric Partridge, page 738/1>

<1945 “She thinks just because she married a sailor she can SCREW the whole Navy.”—Methinks the Lady by G. Endore, vi. page 120>

<1952 “The first thing we do is . .. to run a few signed stories in the book, instead of all that anonymous ‘I-got-SCREWED’ stuff.”—Philanderer (1953) by S. Kauffmann, iv. page 66>

<1958 “Those who cry the most saying goodbye, SCREW the first.”—Canada Made Me by N. Levine, page 16>

<1963 “Santa's bag is filled with all your dreams come true: Nickel beers that sparkle like champagne, Barmaids who all love to SCREW.”—V.: a novel by T. Pynchon, i. page 10>

<1967 “He felt randy as hell but he hadn't even got the price of a quick SCREW.”—No Laughing Matter by A. Wilson. III. page 387>

<1968 “‘We have a free relationship,’ Joe said. ‘She's gone off to SCREW some old friend.’”—Southerly, XXVII. page 38>

<1971 “Five or six Angel birds sat around over cold cups of coffee waiting for a fast ride or a quick SCREW.”—Chopper by P. L. Cave, ii. page 12>

<1972 “You've spent the afternoon SCREWING with him, haven't you?”—Skytrap by G. Harding, iii. page 48>

<1975 “All women longed to be SCREWED by a god, it was the source of all religion.”—Changing Places by D. Lodge, i. page 7>

<1976 “‘Christ says, don’t consider yourself better than someone else because one guy SCREWS a whole bunch of women, while the other guy is loyal to his wife.”—Jimmy Carter in Playboy interview, November> [[the New York Times refused to use Carter’s word “screws” and substituted “has sexual intercourse with” saying “Mr. Carter used a vulgarism for sexual relations.”]]

<1978 “I like a good SCREW as much as the next man, but it's not all that important, is it?”—Human Factor by G. Greene, IV. ii. page 209>
(quotes from the Oxford English Dictionary and archived sources)

However, you were correct in saying that SCREW also means to ‘break into,’ which is also related to the skeleton key:


SCREW: transitive verb: To break into (a house, etc.) by means of a ‘screw’ or skeleton key. Also, more generally, to break into (a house, safe, etc.), to burgle.
<1812 “To SCREW a place is to enter it by false keys.”—A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language (1819), by J. H. Vaux, II. page 204> [[‘flash language’ is the cant or jargon of thieves, vagabonds, etc.]]

<1879 “We went and SCREWED (broke into) his place, and got thirty-two quid.”—Macmillan’s Magazine, XL. page 503/1>

<1896 “He was . .. King of High Mobsmen . . . He did no vulgar thievery: he never SCREWED a chat, nor claimed a peter.”—A Child for the Jago by A. Morrison, xxiv. page 236> [[‘chat,’ a house, especially one chosen for burglary; ‘peter,’ a safe, cash-box, cash register, a till. Thus ‘peter-work,’ meant safe-breaking, and to ‘shoot a peter’ was to blow up a safe]]

<1938 “SCREW, to break open houses and safes.”—Sharpe of the Flying Squad by F. D. Sharpe, page 333>

<1953 “You want to go inside for SCREWIN’ that ware'ouse.”—Public Enemy by H. Clevely, xxvii. page 219>

<1958 “‘Is'nt it a coinsidence that Stanley Golsberg's shop was SCREWED the other day, and a load of cloth was nicked?’ ‘Alright so how much is the bung?’ Asked Solie. ‘Well lets say a fifty and we did'nt see a thing.’”—Bang to Rights: An account of prison life by F. Norman, III. page 149>

<1973 “Yir a brave wee boay that'll SCREW three shoaps in the wan night.”—A Glasgow Gang Observed by J. Patrick, x. page 88>
(quotes from the Oxford English Dictionary and archived sources)

The word SCREW has many more meanings, which are also very interesting, but I think that this is enough – and some might say more than enough — for now. (<;)

Ken – March 16, 2008

Posted on: 17 Mar 2008 02:58

This is not a subject I have researched, Ken, so I bow to your superior work on it. All I can say in defence, is:

1) I read the explanation of 'screw' for warder in a book on thieves cant, written some 50 years ago, but can't quote the passage or title. I can't therefore vouch for its accuracy.

2) The phrase "screwed her knickers" puzzled me when I heard it, quite frequently, in the British Army in the 1950's. Because I then only understood 'screw' as meaning 'to crumple'. After finding it could also mean 'break into', it seemed fairly obvious that "to screw" in the sexual sense was a shortened form of this, even though there appears to be no early record of the longer form. A factor other than mere ellision could be - but here I am only conjecturing- that clandestine sex is today more often a less furtive activity, involving time to undress - which was less the case when the participants were faced both with social stigma and elaborate underwear. I therefore suggest that early dictionaries were unwilling to print the longer form, or failed to realize the connection of the apparently totally different meanings of the word 'screw'.

John Barton, New Plymouth, New Zealand

Posted on: 17 Mar 2008 17:19

John, I’m still having a problem following the logic of your above statements and can make little sense of what you are saying in light of my posting. The object of your first posting appears to have been to provide an origin for the word SCREW, meaning jailer, warder, warden, turnkey, prison guard, etc. I believe that I established in my above posting that the usage was in print in the 19th century starting in 1812 and has had continued through the 20th century and presumably up to the present. In your first posting you claimed that”
<“Warder became the victim of the joke that they ‘broke and entered’ the prisoners’ cells using their key; hence they became called ‘The Screws.’”>

You also claimed that:
<“Until the ‘50’s . . . one did not screw a woman, but screwed (broke and entered) her knickers.”>
Since the SCREW, meaning warden, was in use in 1812, your assumption must be that the content of your two statements above occurred before that. However, the word KNICKERS did not exist in 1812, so clearly the word SCREW, meaning ‘warden,’ could not have evolved as I think you were trying to described.

As to your second point in your last posting the word SCREW could not have arisen as a shortening form of ‘screwed her knickers’ and ‘early dictionaries were unwilling to print the longer form’ because, again, the word ‘knickers’ (1881) did not exist either circa 1725 when the word first appeared in print, nor in 1796 when it appeared in Grose’s famed dictionary, nor in the mid 1800s when the word was apparently in common spoken use (see 1861 quote), if not in common written use.

KNICNKER, short for KNICKERBOCKERS (1859) first appeared in print in 1881.


KNICKERS noun: Colloquial contraction of knickerbockers.

1a) (with lower-case initial). plural. Loose-fitting breeches, gathered in at the knee, and worn by boys, sportsmen, and others who require a freer use of their limbs. . . .
<1881 “It was not in that pocket, . . . nor in his knickers.”—Wood Magic by R. Jefferies, I, i. page 15

<1900 “The Imperial Yeomanry . . . In their well-made, loosely-fitting khaki tunics and riding KNICKERS. “—The Times (London), 29 January, page 10/3>
1b) A short-legged (originally knee-length), frequently loose-fitting, pair of pants worn by women and children as an undergarment. In extended use, the shorts worn by boxers, footballers, etc. Also occasionally in singular.
<1882 “I recommend . . . flannel KNICKERS in preference to flannel petticoat.”—Queen, 7 October, page 328/3>

<1895 “Serge KNICKERS . . . for girls from twelve to sixteen.”—Home Chat, 2 November, page 301/2>

<1926 “French KNICKER made in Grafton's Voile and Grafton's Chiffonelle. Trimmed with lace. Elastic waistband.”— Home Chat, 22 May, page 507>

<1928 “Laws . . . are amended and amended and amended like a child's KNICKERS until there is hardly a shred of the first stuff left.”— Intelligent Woman's Guide Socialism by George Bernard Shaw, i. page 2>

<1951 “Iron KNICKERS, one leg at a time.”—Good Housekeeping Home Encylopedia, page 156/1>

<1968 “(caption) Little girls wore short KNICKERS before women did.”—History of Ladies Underwear by C. Saint-Laurent, x. page 145>

<1974 “Women workers in a lingerie factory . .. waved yellow KNICKERDS at Mr Thorpe as a gesture of support.”—Guardian, 19 February, page 1/5>

<1985 “Payne Stewart’s fashion show continued to dazzle in the second round of the Masters Friday. His pastel blue KNICKERS, Hogan cap and shoes with the silver twinkletoe tips were the talk of Augusta National . . .”—Los Angeles Times (California), 13 April, page >

<1996 “A dizzying range of shapes and hi-tech fabrics means that not only can you buy the perfect KNICKERS for just about any garment - making VPLs [[visible panty lines]] all but obsolete - you can even buy KNICKERS that help to coax your body into a suitable shape.”—The Independent (London), 13 March>

<2008 “Politicians in the US can start wars without reason, hand out goodies and contracts to cronies, even confess to a little flirtation with substances and evoke little more than a tsk, tsk from the public. But let a politician get caught with his pants down [[New York’s Governor Eliot Spitzer]] and the public really gets its KNICKERS in a twist. Hindustan Times (New Delhi, India), 14 March>
(quotes from Oxford English Dictionary and archived sources)

Note: John. The word elision in your above posting should be spelled with one ‘l.’


Ken – March 17, 2008

Re: screw

Post by gdwdwrkr » Tue Mar 18, 2008 9:43 am

Once long ago, during lunch, a co-worker and I replaced the nail, on which hung another so-worker's dovetail saw at the top of his window-frame, with a screw.
Returning to work, our co-worker reached for his saw, and it would not come. With much consternation, and with his 8" comb-over quite mussed, he clambered up on his bench and began to extract the screw with his Yankee screw-driver. Now if you have ever seen a Yankee screw-driver, you know that it is an incredible torque-deliverer requiring quite a good axial push to power its helical mechanism.
Before it was all over, our co-worker had run the Yankee through the window glass.
When he asked us who had done it, we each said "I don't know."

Re: screw

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Tue Mar 18, 2008 6:10 pm

Wouldn't this be a new thread?

Re: screw

Post by gdwdwrkr » Tue Mar 18, 2008 6:31 pm

I have a box marked
I'm half-afraid to touch it.

Re: screw

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Fri Mar 21, 2008 1:25 am

You'll have to brace yourself and put the bit between your teeth.

Re: screw

Post by p. g. cox » Fri Mar 21, 2008 3:47 am

Edwin, Is that an old saw?
Signature: Pete.

Re: screw

Post by russcable » Fri Mar 21, 2008 5:52 am

You know the drill.

Re: screw

Post by Tony Farg » Fri Mar 21, 2008 8:51 am

Oh do stop hammering on.

Re: screw

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Fri Mar 21, 2008 10:12 am

I'm still wondering whether Jim's box is the famous one fifteen men once tap-danced - or whatever - on.

Re: screw

Post by Bobinwales » Mon Mar 24, 2008 12:16 am

I think it was in York that I saw a contraption.

It was a crank that turned a spindle, and that turned nothing at all. The sign on the wall next to it said that it was a punishment meted out to prisoners in the early 19th century. They had to turn the crank a certain number of times, and to make it even more difficult a screw would be tightened to make the job more difficult. The warder who tightened the screw became known as a screw himself.

If it is true, good. If it isn't blame the bloke who wrote it on the wall!
Signature: All those years gone to waist!
Bob in Wales

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