A Lexicon of the Criminal's Speech

Words do not mean what they seem to mean

Posted Mar 27, 2018

People who make crime a way of life use language idiosyncratically. Apart from using slang and street expressions, they use common words that take on a meaning quite different from customary usage by people who lead basically responsible lives.  To understand how a criminal uses words, understanding context is critical!

“Trust” is one example.  If a criminal says he trusts you, he is asserting confidence that you won’t “snitch” or inform on him.  Or he may be articulating his assumption that you will go along with him (at least not interfere) in an illicit enterprise.  This is in stark contrast to the more common meaning of trust that refers to establishing a bond based on mutual credibility or loyalty.  The concept of trusting someone embraces an integrity that forms the cornerstone of a relationship.

When a criminal says he “loves” a person, he often is referring to sex or to sentiment that appears at odds with how he actually treats that individual.  Many criminals profess intense love for their mothers.  The criminal counts on his mother to bail him out of a jam, visit him in jail and to assist him in innumerable other ways.  Despite what he does, she clings to her view that he is at heart a good person.  This individual whom he appears to cherish turns into his arch enemy when she inquires too closely about his whereabouts and activities or fails to give him what he wants. 

A criminal is incapable of a truly loving relationship which requires that he consider others’ needs ahead of his own. Ted told his wife he was taking her out for a special evening of dinner and dancing.  He sent flowers in advance.  She dressed up and was looking forward to a rare evening out with him.  On his way home, Ted encountered a drug dealer, then hung out that night on the streets.  Again, he had let down the person whom he professed to love.  A criminal lacks a concept of a person as a human being. He may appear loving as Alan was with his two young sons.  His adoration of them was no barrier to pilfering money from their piggy banks to purchase heroin. 

A criminal may acknowledge that he has a “problem” and needs “help.”  The semantics of this are that the “problem” consists of a hole he has dug for himself by his own irresponsibility.  The “help” he seeks is for someone to rescue him from his self-created dilemma.

Criminals sometimes used the word “paranoid” as an expression of unease and suspicion.  Actually, “paranoia” is a symptom of mental illness.  It refers to a person harboring intense fear and suspicion without a basis in reality.  If a person asserts the devil is chasing him or he fears he has been poisoned by the water supply, he is suffering from paranoia. When criminals  give voice to expressions of paranoia, there is usually a good reason for them to be suspicious and on guard.  Most likely, others really are pursuing them because of their irresponsible and illegal conduct. 

The criminal’s insistence on “respect” permeates his interactions whether on the street, at work, at home, or in confinement.  To be “disrespected” even in a seemingly trivial manner is experienced as a severe psychological blow. For most people, respect is earned, not demanded.  A person may gain respect for his accomplishments or for personal qualities such as kindness, generosity or courage.  A criminal demands respects and thinks he is entitled to it just because he is who he is.

Granted that people vary in their opinion of what constitutes “success,” the criminal views it mainly in terms of overcoming and defeating others or making a “big score” in a crooked enterprise. From childhood, many criminals drop out of activities that require hard work, delay of gratification, and adherence to rules. If they do not succeed instantly and receive the instant recognition that they believe they are due, they abandon the enterprise.  Some criminals gain prestige and status in legitimate endeavors.  Nonetheless, they remain dissatisfied with success legitimately gained. They exploit their success for further self-aggrandizement which they pursue through fraud, extortion, or other means.  The more they succeed in legitimate endeavors, the easier it is to get away with illicit activities.  Success that has taken years to build is quickly destroyed once they are apprehended.

People take “pride” in achievements, in development of their talents, in meeting challenges, and in other aspects of life that require effort and endurance.  The criminal’s sense of pride is integral to his fragile self-concept which, in great part, rests on whom he considers himself to be rather than on anything legitimate that he has accomplished.  This sense of pride is brittle as evidenced by his “If I bend, I break” attitude.  Even when proven wrong,  he will stubbornly persist insist on the correctness of his position as though it is a matter of life or death.

People who interact (often unknowingly) with a criminal are likely to be baffled by the discrepancy between what he says and how he behaves.  An understanding of semantics (how he uses language) is invaluable in helping to explain that disparity.