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How prisoner warders came to be called 'Screws'

Posted by Masakim on December 28, 2001 at

In Reply to: How prisoner warders came to be called 'Screws' posted by ESC on December 28, 2001

: : Something I've just discovered, and which doesn't seem to be in my reference books. The following about a 'screw' came up on a repeat BBC TV programme in the series 'What the Victorians did for us', in an episode about police and prisons, which even showed the cranking machine described below.

: : Screwed: To be screwed. Although it is a slang /colloquial expression for sexual intercourse, also means to be cheated, put in a disadvantageous position. This latter meaning seems to be related to the use of 'screw' as a slang name for a prison guard or warder. Until the mid 1800s, prisons, at least in England, were places of punishment only, with no concept of rehabilitation for the prisoners. One of the forms of punishment was to crank a handle attached to a large wooden box. The cranking did nothing, other than turn a counter. The prisoner had to do 10,000 turns in 8 hours, equivalent to one every 3 seconds or so. As an extra punishment a warder could tighten a screw to make turning more difficult. Warders came to be known as 'screws'. By inference, the prisoner was 'screwed' and, although 'screw' remained within the prison environment, eventually 'to be screwed' became widespread.

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: SCREW - ".as underworld slang for a prison guard dating back to the mid-19th century, 'screw' was suggested by someone harsh and brutal, one who used thumbscrews on prisoners." From the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997).

screw as a term for a prison guard is based on the fact that _screw_ was originally slang for "key." One of the most important functions of a prison guard, or turnkey, as he's often called, is to see that prisoners are locked up at the appropriate times -- and that involves turning the "screw." Interestingly enough, Henry Mencken reports in _The American Language_ that in the 1920s deskmen and bellboys in hotels used _screw_ as a slang term for room key. Another theory is that _screw_ refers to the thumbscrews used by jailers in ancient times to torture prisoners into confessing.
From Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins by William and Mary Morris.

Eric Partridge, in A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, also wrote:
*screw. A skelton key: c[ant]: 1975, Potter; slightly ob[solescent]. --2. ? hence, a turnkey or prison warder: 1821, Egan: c[ant] until ca. 1860, then low s[lang]....

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