starred-upStarred Up, an unconventional father-son story set in prison, represents a number of things for British cinema. Firstly, it’s emblematic of how strong UK-set and UK-made productions have been recently; in the past year alone, we’ve had The Selfish Giant, For Those in Peril, and A Field in England among others, all proving that the country is in very healthy cinematic shape indeed. It also gives us more reason to laud young British talent – Jack O’Connell provides a mesmerizing exhibition of vulnerable intensity, plus an extraordinarily interesting journey to our shores from Ben Mendelsohn, an actor more accustomed to his native Australian dramas (as the main source of evil in 2011’s Animal Kingdom) and American blockbusters (a glorified stooge in The Dark Knight Rises in a lesser one in Killing Them Softly).

But what Starred Up also does, is reveal a way of life that moves along every day, all day, unknown to most of the public due to either lack of knowledge, ignorance, or both; the British prison system is a world unseen by most, but it exists. Of course, we’ve had hard-hitting and revealing movies in the same mould as Starred Up plenty of times before such as Scum and Hunger, but in not quite the same observational style. And that world, like any, is brought to life by observing its modus operandi; the language.

Language not only expresses what we are, but defines it too – in a strictly Lacanian sense, it’s both the articulation of our psyches, and also acts as our definitions, our boundaries (ever been stuck with figuring out how to explain something, but end up sounding like a waffling buffoon?) So, new words come into play, the language evolves; according to Christopher Mulvey, the UK’s foremost scholar of the English language (The Etylomologicon and The Elements of Eloquence some of his best-selling works), the words and phrases developed in prisons is a combination of jargon, slang and cant (‘cant’ being a kind of ‘secret’ language. The Oxford Dictionary definition describes it as ‘used by gipsies, thieves, professional beggars, etc’). Over the years, legal terms have also mingled with lingo on the inside; words like ‘association’ and ‘parole’ can have slightly different meanings, not just from prisoners themselves but of the law enforcing them. And so, prison lingo is gestated, formed from necessity of a strict closed-off universe, and as a means to keep inquisitive prison guards out of the loop.

The key difference to prison lingo is its similarity to that used on the playground by teenagers, where language evolves roughly every five years to keep adults disconnected; prison language also evolves aggressively, to assist in keeping inner social structures as they are. But what’s more interesting is the lack of knowledge about prison lingo’s true breadth; only its speakers are privy to its permutations, meanings and so on. For instance, Randy Kearse, a convict in America, collected over 10,000 different words that were in use in the US prison system, and published it as a book (Street Slang) in 2007. So by now, many of those words and phrases will have evolved; they’ll have changed meaning completely, or dropped out of use.

In a similar respect, Starred Up’s screenwriter Jonathan Asser spent twelve years as a prison psychotherapist. He keenly incorporates the unique language throughout the film, keeping the drama true-to-life. Here are only a handful of lingo widely used in UK prisons, some used in Starred Up and some beyond (thanks to Substance Movies for providing):

‘Fraggle’ – A vulnerable prisoner.

Kanga’ – A prison officer.

‘Starred Up’ – Transferal from juvenile jail / young offenders to adult jail

‘Straightener’ – An attack that is pre-arranged. A ‘lesson’.

‘Double bubble’ – Two for one.

Acki’ – A fellow Muslim.

Mug off’ – To show disrespect.

‘Tech’ – A mobile phone.

‘Gwap’ – Money.

Starred Up is in cinemas now, and you can read our review here.