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October 2, 2008

Slang of the Week: mackerel (noun)
a pimp (among other things)

To satisfy her mackerel, Gwendolyn was obliged to walk the streets of London, fishing for clients.

Celebrity quote
“Pierre, he believed, would now put that foreign menace and her mackerel in their places and spend all his evenings with him.”
-Author Elliot Paul in A Narrow Street

The word mackerel, now largely out of use, has meant prostitute, madam and pimp. That last meaning lives on in the variation mack daddy, a word that can also mean a ladies’ man. The fishy term has had many other variations. In the sixteenth century, a pimp’s services were called mackerelage. These days, to be macked out is to be flashily dressed, mackalicious describes a sexy man and to mack is to try to seduce.

Yesterday, however, I was reading the Wall Street Journal, where I discovered that mackerel is now a monetary unit in prisons. I don’t mean that figuratively, the way we use lettuce, cheddar or bread to mean money. Forbidden from using US currency, prisoners in some penitentiaries have replaced banknotes with actual packages of fish. This has led to an increase in mackerel sales to prison commissaries in recent years, despite the fact that few prisoners enjoy eating them.

This usage has some interesting counterparts in both money and prison slang. While the similarly water-based clams (dollars) has a vintage sound, it is still in use. On the popular crime-solving drama CSI, character Greg Sanders criticizes a man who “charges 300 clams to test your spouse's underwear for foreign DNA.” In prison, a new inmate is a fish, and his welcome package of toiletries and other necessities is called a fish kit, while a fishing line is used to drag items such as kites (letters) between cells.

Read the WSJ’s pun-filled article here:

Take a look in our bookstore for books and DVDs on all kinds of slang! This week’s pick is one of my favorites: You Can't Win, by Jack Black. This fascinating slang-filled biography details Black’s adventures as a turn-of-the-century hobo, safe-cracker and prisoner.