Glossary Supplement: Screw

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How prisoner warders came to be called 'Screws' Posted by masakim on Dec 28, 2001:

The following about a 'screw' came up on a 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.

From Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, NY, 1997): '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 Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, 2nd Ed (1988), William and Mary Morris: 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.

Eric Partridge, in A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 5th ed. (1961), wrote: 'screw. A skeleton 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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