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For a story I'm writing, I've stumbled over a word and dictionaries aren't much help (if they turn up anything at all, they don't give me a good feel for either the exact meaning or usage).

I need a slang word with the meaning of "police station", specifically one I could pass as something a street criminal in 1970s New York would say. (I. e. not police slang unless it overlaps, not British, not too new...) Ideally the right word that such a person would actually use, of course.

The character is saying that all policemen at the station where he was a frequent involuntary guest were expressing homophobic views.

"Everyone at the station" sounds definitely too formal.

"Everyone at the cophouse" still feels rather mainstream, rather than slang.

One dictionary I found suggested "tank", but according to another, that means a cell, not the station as a whole.

What is the word my deuteragonist should use?

1
  • Scholarly article (behind a paywall) on prison slang in the US in the 1970's.
    – Kirt
    Dec 16, 2022 at 16:47

11 Answers 11

61

A friend was a street criminal in 1970's New York, USA. His specialty was stealing people's hubcaps. His brother ran the store selling "refurbished" hubcaps. Not exactly pillars of society in their younger days. They eventually got caught by a couple undercover cops and were prosecuted.

I asked him what they called their local police station. He said "precinct" was the most common when speaking in a serious tone. "Cop shop" was sometimes used informally. Usually, however, they referred to it as the "donut shop".

(and yes, that was their preferred spelling)

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  • 5
    Your final sentence completely explains that lyric in Tom's Diner by Suzuanne Vega. Not knowing that slang, I'd always assumed they gathered in a place that literally sells doughnuts. BTW, cop shop is also in general use in UK (though I'm not sure what words actual offenders use). Dec 15, 2022 at 10:51
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    @TobySpeight my experience visiting LA suggests that cops also hang out in literal doughnut shops (so did I because the hotel breakfast was overpriced and the coffee bad)
    – Chris H
    Dec 15, 2022 at 15:49
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    Cop shop was the first thing that came to mind for me (American English).
    – delliottg
    Dec 15, 2022 at 16:32
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    @LorenzoDonatisupportUkraine: Here's a history of the association. Basically, donut shops open early, close late, and sell an inexpensive food that doesn't need prep time and can be eaten quickly. Dec 15, 2022 at 19:02
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    @Divizna I passed on your thanks to my friend, and his immediate reply was "you didn't post my name did you?!". LOL. My response was to share with him that I already told his granddaughter all about this years ago and that it had slipped my mind to mention it to him until now. ;) Dec 16, 2022 at 6:57
17

"Pig" is a relatively common insult to refer to a cop, and as a result the terms "pigpen" and "pigsty" can refer to a police station. I found an example of pigpen from what looks like a 1970s publication:

Force the National Guard to protect every polling place. Freak out the pigs (police) with exhibitions of snake dancing and karate at the nearest pigpen (police station).

In US black slang (attested in 1980), there's also "pig heaven".

See Green's Dictionary of Slang.

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  • This only works in the US, referring to it as the ''pigpen'' in England would get blank looks. Dec 16, 2022 at 14:02
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    @Hollis Yeah, OP's asking for American slang
    – wjandrea
    Dec 17, 2022 at 2:54
11

Precinct: The word is current, used by the public and criminals, American English only, and has been used for a long time:

OED

c. North American. The police station in a particular precinct.

1894 P. L. Ford Hon. Peter Stirling 142 I had to go with them..to the precinct and speak to the superintendent.

1953 W. S. Burroughs Junkie x. 98 They drove back to the precinct and I was locked in. This time I was locked in a different cell.

2005 Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tennessee) (Nexis) 8 Sept. cr12
The next Citizens Police Academy will begin Wednesday at the Northeast Precinct,..off Whitten Road.

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  • 2
    I would have thought this term belonged to jargon, rather than slang, but it is merely colloquial (SOED).
    – LPH
    Dec 14, 2022 at 19:54
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    "The walls in the 53rd Precinct were bleeding."
    – Mazura
    Dec 15, 2022 at 0:58
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    This seems rather more formal than what was requested
    – Darren H
    Dec 15, 2022 at 11:05
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    @Nosajimiki From my dictionary the regular nme for "police station" is "precinct house", and that is considered current; only when the term is shortened to "precinct" to mean still "police station" is it considered as colloquial.
    – LPH
    Dec 15, 2022 at 17:36
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    @LPH Never heard anyone say "precinct house" (not that I'm deeply involved in law enforcement). "Precinct" seems to function metonymically for both the geographic area and the building itself for most speakers of AmE. Dec 15, 2022 at 20:42
7

One possible expression is: Downtown:

(US police/Und.) police headquarters.

  • 1969 [US] C. Himes Blind Man with a Pistol (1971) 112: Did the boys downtown make him?
  • 1976 [US] N. Thornburg Cutter and Bone (2001) 34: Get dressed [...] We’re going downtown.
  • 1986 [US] C. Stroud Close Pursuit (1988) 239: Downtown knows this is a bullshit charge.

(GDoS)

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    I think "downtown" is the best option for a 1970s-specific setting. Also relevant is this lyric from Rodney Crowell, "I Ain't Living Long Like This" (written by 1977), at 1:29: "Y'all know the story how the wheel goes 'round? / Don't let them take you to the man downtown / They got 'em all in the jailhouse / I ain't livin' long like this."
    – Sven Yargs
    Dec 14, 2022 at 20:12
  • It is kind of interesting that "downtown" was used to refer specifically to city law enforcement (and sometimes the associated criminal justice system) but it's really common to hear it used this way in old cop shows.
    – JamieB
    Dec 15, 2022 at 17:06
  • In 1970s New York City, "downtown" would only refer to the station at One Police Plaza, not any of the 77 other precinct stations. (And I suspect it would only be used by police, not by criminals.)
    – Mark
    Dec 15, 2022 at 23:26
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There is the slang "pig pen", but it is possibly of recent origin, that is, more recent than the 1970s.

(Urban-Dictionary) pig pen police station
• I saw 2 police cars leave the pig pen

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    I'm almost sure that "pig" goes back to at least 1960s, so it's likely related words would too, but I was under the impression that it's British. Can you confirm its usage in the USA?
    – Divizna
    Dec 14, 2022 at 15:37
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    @Divizna The usage of "pig" was common in the 1970s in the USA and I thought it originated there, but I can't recall hearing or reading "pig pen" while I was there (1970s).
    – LPH
    Dec 14, 2022 at 15:43
  • That sounds hopeful! As for you not hearing it (or remembering), I'm guessing you weren't part of the community :o))
    – Divizna
    Dec 14, 2022 at 15:57
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    @Divizna That would be contradictory since it was in the community that I could hear the term "pig" (I must say that I heard it then from the mouths of the young (of which I was part) not from the mouths of family men, for instance).
    – LPH
    Dec 14, 2022 at 16:01
  • In Irish (as in Gaeilge), "muc truc" ("pig lorry/truck", and it rhymes in Irish) is a slang term for police car, and I've heard it mixed in to English in Ireland as well (with people who switch back and forth between Irish and English all the time). Dec 18, 2022 at 3:29
4

There are crummy and cally from American tramp and underworld slang. They can be used both for a jail and a police station. Here are the definitions and the earliest citations from Green's Slang Dictionary:

crummy n.3
2. (US Und.) a local jail, police station or workhouse.

1950 [US] Goldin et al. DAUL 53/2: Crummy, n. [...] 2. A local lock-up, police station, or workhouse. ‘Thirty days in that crummy is worse than a treyer (three years) in the big house (state prison).’.

cally n.
also callie
[abbr. calaboose n.]
(US tramp)

2. a police station.

1919 [US] St Louis Post-Despatch (MO) 16 Jan. 25/1: Where’d you be if I hadn’t planted you, you fat-headed old baster (shoplifter). You’d be in the callie (police station), that’s where.

Cally is an abbreviation of calaboose which is a U.S. slang term for a police station also. It is from Louisiana French Creole calabouse and ultimately from Spanish calabozo 'dungeon' per OED; and OED defines calaboose as the name of a common prison in New Orleans and adjacent parts of the U.S.

Calaboose was first attested in 1792 per Green's Slang Dictionary and there are citations from almost all decades from 1792 to 2000's. Here is a citation from 1966, from GDoS:

[US] M. Rumaker Exit 3 and Other Stories 50: You git in the calaboose down here, buddy, you just rot.

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  • I guess these would both sound pretty dated in the 1970s? Dec 15, 2022 at 10:51
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    @TobySpeight I don't think so based on the evidence I've provided. I don't have firsthand experience though. Also, the OP asked for a slang term. Precinct, given in some other answers, is not a slang term.
    – ermanen
    Dec 15, 2022 at 11:16
  • I guess it might be helpful to quote 1970s citations as well as (or instead of) the earliest ones if you have them (I do see your relevant one for the full calaboose). Dec 15, 2022 at 11:20
  • @TobySpeight It is difficult to find written evidence from 1970's. I suspect these slang terms were or are more prevalent in speech in underworld slang. It is harder to find written evidence for older slang, pre-internet era. Plus, cally and crummy have other senses as well. Calaboose has more citations in GDoS. Crummy has a citation from 1950, and the latest citation for cally is from 1931 in GDoS. It would be great if someone (possibly with firsthand experience) could confirm their usage in 1970's.
    – ermanen
    Dec 15, 2022 at 11:45
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    While not a perquisite of the OP, this is probably my favorite answer for literary reasons specifically because they are not really used anymore. Words like pig pin and cop shop may have been used that long ago, but they are still common enough today that they don't imply any feelings of being in a historical setting. But calli/crummy sound like you are talking from an older era, and would fit very well if your character is a bit of an older guy.
    – Nosajimiki
    Dec 15, 2022 at 15:39
3

OED also lists bear den or bear's den, specifically as "U.S. slang (in CB radio communications and among truckers)", with two citations from 1975 and 1976. Based on your description of the character, however, it seems unlikely they would have heard this unless they hung out in certain circles.

Front office is formal, but almost so formal that it can be used mockingly or in scare quotes. It is originally U.S.. Here's OED's citation from a 1966 edition of Punch:

This is the sort of thing that can happen when the ‘front office’ is dubious about a film's popular appeal.

2

A bit of a frame challenge, but a lot of times when there is no "right" word English speakers just use a completely different way of saying something. So I would suggest your character might say, "All the cops were (being homophobic)." and leave it as implied that this was at the police station because that's where the cops are. (Or use some other slang term for cops, e.g. pigs or similar, depending on how your character feels about the cops.)

This also works for non-specific ways of indicating the police station, such as calling it by the street name or general area of town. (People also use this for, e.g., office buildings or other things in context--"the Brooklyn office", "I have to go downtown for a meeting today" [at the downtown office].)

0

For completeness, in British English, a police station is commonly referred to as the Nick - especially in the London area.

Tom just called, he's down the nick. I guess the cops broke up that party he was at.

Quote source: Down the nick

Alternatively, and possibly more southern Britsh English, the old bill shop (as the police are referred to as "the old bill", so named after their founder William Peel1).


1 In an antiquated form of slang, the police were also referred to as Peelers, but that fell out of common use long ago

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    Peelers may be out of use in Britain, but it hung around much longer in Ireland. See things like etsy.com/listing/719740539/… - but I suspect you'd only use it for British police, not the Gardaí. Dec 18, 2022 at 3:38
-1

The clink. The precinct. The watch house.

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    "Clink" is interesting as it it British slang for a prison where it came from the name of a prison in London which no longer exists.
    – BoldBen
    Dec 16, 2022 at 10:09
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    That's three answers. Please post answers separately.
    – Chenmunka
    Dec 16, 2022 at 11:11
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Hoosgauw....spelling is probably wrong.

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    – Community Bot
    Dec 14, 2022 at 17:37
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    Hoosegow, which means prison (not police station)?
    – Laurel
    Dec 14, 2022 at 18:06
  • The original spelling, in Spanish, was juzgado (a criminal court). I also thought of hoosegow.
    – Davislor
    Dec 15, 2022 at 2:35

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