I am a non-native speaker looking for a pejorative describing a living space that is of extremely low quality and condition, especially (but not necessarily limited to) a prison cell.

I did some research and found hole and hovel, but still wonder if there is something more suitable.

A paraphrase would be fine as well.

He found himself sitting in this __

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    I was about to suggest 'hovel' before you added it. However hovel does not apply to a prison cell - it applies to someone's home. Do you specifically want to describe a cell or do you want to describe an everyday dwelling? – chasly - supports Monica Oct 8 '15 at 10:20
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    Ghetto might fit, but it doesn't necessarily mean "a prison cell/room". – user140086 Oct 8 '15 at 10:27
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    @Rathony wouldn't Ghetto rather describe an area than a single room or living space? – Wottensprels Oct 8 '15 at 10:28
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    Yes. That's why I didn't put it as an answer. – user140086 Oct 8 '15 at 10:32
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    "extremely low quality and condition" is vague, hence the range of replies. You must also consider that you are indirectly characterizing either your narrator or your subject when choosing this word. So you need to give not only a little description of the place but a brief description of your protagonist if you're hoping for anything like the mot juste. – TRomano Oct 8 '15 at 14:01

11 Answers 11


A shithole, as defined by Oxford Dictionaries Online, is slang for a terrible place to live in.

An extremely dirty, shabby, or otherwise unpleasant place

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    Also, it should be pointed out to non-native speakers that this would be viewed by some as highly offensive. – Graham Nicol Oct 8 '15 at 10:22
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    If you want a slightly less offensive version then 'rat-hole' is another possibility. – chasly - supports Monica Oct 8 '15 at 10:33
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    @chaslyfromUK I would vote for it. – user140086 Oct 8 '15 at 10:36
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    A "shithole" is definitely an appropriate (though offensive) word for describing a low-quality location, but I'm not so sure that it's normal to refer to a prison-cell as such. Prisons aren't really expected to be high-quality places to spend time in to begin with. To call a prison cell a "shithole" would seem to suggest that there exist cells that aren't low-quality, which is why the usage of the word in that context seems a little odd. – 40XUserNotFound Oct 8 '15 at 11:26
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    @Cupcake I disagree. A normal, civilized cell wouldn't be a shithole but merely a very uncomfortable place to be – Wottensprels Oct 9 '15 at 11:48

An unpleasant and dreary place can be called a dump.

An unpleasant or dreary place
Why are you living in a dump like this?

Oxford Dictionaries Online, linked here, has other examples.

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    +1 And there is that classic line by Bette Davis in the movie Beyond the Forest, disparaging her home: *What a dump!" – bib Oct 8 '15 at 15:09
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    Note here that in the literal sense, a "dump" is where garbage is permanently disposed of, as in, "Have that junk taken to the dump." This is a very strong perjorative, but is much more appropriate in polite company than "shithole" or "hellhole". After all, no one would want to live anywhere near a dump. – Vivian River Oct 9 '15 at 18:30
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    +1 I think this is the best "neutral" answer addressing the "not necessarily a prison cell" aspect of the question. On the ISO squalor scale, a dump is far better appointed than a shit-hole or a hellhole. – TRomano Oct 10 '15 at 8:50

Consider hellhole

A place of extreme wretchedness or squalor.

American Heritage Dictionary

This is often used to describe actual prisons where the conditions are extreme. Its use, however is not limited to prisons, and often describes other unpleasant locations.

  • Agreed, when I hear hellhole, I immediately think of a prison or asylum, not just an unpleasant location. – barbecue Oct 9 '15 at 1:00
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    To me, "hellhole" implies a place that is actively dangerous or detrimental to your well-being. I didn't get the sense that that was what the OP was after. – Dan Oct 9 '15 at 23:50

Pigsty has the following meaning in Merriam-Webster.

a place where pigs are kept

a dirty or messy place

I cannot think of a dirtier place than where pigs live and it can be a good alternative for the hole words suggested above.

  • Worms live in pretty dirty holes ... – Lamar Latrell Oct 8 '15 at 11:17
  • @LamarLatrell Depends on what worm you are talking about. Some of them live inside human beings and I don't want to call it dirty holes. – user140086 Oct 8 '15 at 11:20
  • Well, I'm talking about earthworms ... 'cannot think of a dirtier place' made me think of dirt, then worms, then the fact that worms effectively live in 'holes', and that your post talks about your dirtiest place being a good alternative for hole ... and then ... ya dig ? – Lamar Latrell Oct 8 '15 at 11:25
  • @LamarLatrell +1 for your thinking process. BTW, wormhole doens't have a connotation of a "dirty" place. – user140086 Oct 8 '15 at 11:34
  • And yet, it is nothing but dirt - interesting for me at least ... :) – Lamar Latrell Oct 8 '15 at 12:56

In addition to the other good ones (hovel, hellhole, dump, etc) squalor is a good one.

He found himself sitting in this squalor.

To imply a prison cell you don't necessarily have to package that implication into that part of the sentence. One could also write.

He found himself imprisoned in this squalor/hovel/hellhole/dump.

That would then carry the notion that the "squalor" was a cell/prison.

  • I always thought squalor would describe a state of neglectedness? – Wottensprels Oct 10 '15 at 12:52
  • @Sprottenwels: Indeed. "Squalor" implies neglect, removable dirt or untidiness, and hence a negative judgement on the inhabitants failure to tidy it up. "Dump", on the other hand, suggests the problem lies in the place rather than the people. Of course you could always combine them into "squalid dump". – Paul Johnson Oct 11 '15 at 15:02
  • @Sprottenwels - Close. I think it's more accurate to say it means some sort of undesirable place like the other words, with the added implication that it is likely that way because of being neglected. To me that's slightly different from actually describing a state neglect itself. I still believe it fits as an option for the OP. Nothing in the OP implied that such connotation would not make an answer eligible. But I recognize that, depending on the author's intentions, it could not be the perfect answer which is why I noted that it's an option in addition to the other good words listed so far. – Jimbo Jonny Oct 11 '15 at 17:24

I would say that "cell" itself works well. You don't have to use it for only prison cells, and the connotation of conditions will still exist (well, assuming the reader knows what prison cells are like). Tiny, spartan and not designed for comfort or amenities (unless you're in Japan or Norway), potentially unclean...

Of course, if you want to give an even stronger impression, you could use something like "dungeon".

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    A mere cell, however, wouldn't be of extremely low quality and condtion but just uncomfortable. – Wottensprels Oct 9 '15 at 11:47
  • That depends where the cell is. A cell in a prison of a western industrialized country is probably entirely different to a cell in Asia or Africa. – Drunken Code Monkey Oct 10 '15 at 0:09
  • A prison cell isn't the only kind of cell. The tiny, spartan rooms where nuns and monks live are also called cells (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monastic_cell). In fact, based on the etymology at (dictionary.reference.com/browse/cell), I suspect this usage predates prison cell. – Vectornaut Oct 10 '15 at 22:48

pigsty, rat-hole, sewer-pit... so many to choose from!


squalor (noun) 1. the condition of being squalid; filth and misery.

Synonyms: wretchedness

Example: Even in the aftermath of the earthquake, the CNN camera crew easily captured the squalor that existed in the facility.


A few suggestions:

  • slum: often refers to a street or district but it can also be used to describe a house or building
  • shack: describes a poorly constructed and often small dwelling which is likely to fall apart
  • pit: a physically low dirty place (would go along with the idea of a hole)
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    Hole in the wall doesn't fit at all - it's often used positively. It means a tiny, easily-missed commercial establishment, which are notably often the best kinds, especially if you're talking about Mexican food. It definitely wouldn't ever be used to describe a prison cell. – neminem Oct 9 '15 at 16:08
  • Note that "slum" has racial overtones. I don't think I've ever heard of it being used to describe a specific room, especially a prison cell. – Vivian River Oct 9 '15 at 18:34
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    @RiceFlourCookies I don't know why you think "Slum" has racial overtones. – Ben Oct 10 '15 at 15:30

A prison cell if it is shared feels cramped, stifling and, often, claustrophobic. The term cage conveys the image of a person trapped in a small confined space.

cage: 1. a structure of bars or wires in which birds or other animals are confined. 2. a prison cell or camp.

If the OP wants to express the sheer desolation then I suggest the following

He found himself sitting in his godforsaken room/bedsit/cubicle/cell etc.

(TFD) godforsaken
1. Located in a dismal or remote area. 2. Desolate; forlorn.


Messy/Tacky/Sloppy room or filthy place

  • Thanks so far. Messy would rather indicate untidiness I guess and I always thought tacky would rather be used to describe bad taste. All in all, these are sort of too weak to me – Wottensprels Oct 8 '15 at 10:21
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    @Sprottenwels yes, "tacky" is used to describe something that has poor taste, but is not necessarily low-quality. You could have an expensive apartment that is decorated with lots of expensive artwork, but someone mind find the decorations to be "tacky", even if they are of high-quality. – 40XUserNotFound Oct 8 '15 at 11:48

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