In Australia, the tv show is known simply as Prisoner. In other places, Prisoner is called Prisoner: Cell Block H (and, in Canada, sometimes Caged Women). Network Ten Australia produced the soap opera, which ran for 692 episodes from 1979 to 1986 (the tv show was originally intended only as a 16-part series). Prisoner has recently been reimagined as Wentworth, produced by Foxtel in Australia. In the new and old versions of the tv show, Prisoner (or Wentworth) is set in a fictional women's prison called the Wentworth Detention Centre.
Prisoner is still much-loved for its story lines, edgy themes for its day (including female homosexuality, women's health, and justice), and strong female characters. The whole tv series is available on YouTube. Of particular interest to us, is the tv show's rich vocabulary. Here is a list of just some of the words and phrases that Prisoner has introduced to many a viewer, especially overseas viewers. As you can see, exploring the vocabulary of Prisoner: Cell Block H reveals some interesting history...
Screw. Screw is a slang name for a prison warder. Various explanations exist for the history of the word in this context. Some suggest screw comes from thumbscrew or the screw that prison warders would tighten in order to make harder the olden-day punishment of cranking a handle attached to a large wooden box. Others suggest screw was originally slang for key and that one of the warder's main jobs was to lock prisoners in their cells (and hence became known as turnkeys and, then, as screws).
Lagger. Probably the most serious breach of the inmates' rules was to lag. If you were caught lagging, you'd be severely punished. Lag is Australian slang for "to inform the authorities" or to dob. A lagger is a snitcher, a dobber, a tattletale. Lag evidently comes from the convicts transported to Australia — or lags, as they called themselves.
Keep nit. To keep nit is to keep watch. Nit is probably a variation of nix from late 18th century England, when Nix! was used as a signal or warning that a person in authority is approaching.
Send to Coventry. One of the milder, and most frequent, punishments that the women in Wentworth dish out to one another is to send a lagger or other perceived wrongdoer "to Coventry". To send someone to Coventry means to ostracise them — by not talking to them, avoiding them, and pretending they don't exist. Sometimes, the inmates would treat those sent to Coventry as though they are invisible and inaudible. The origin of the saying isn't precisely known, though lots of theories exist. But it's reasonably certain that Coventry refers to a cathedral city in the West Midlands, England.
Pat Malone. Pat Malone (or sometimes just Pat) is Australian rhyming slang for own or alone, as in "she left her on her Pat Malone". Rhyming slang is where a common word (for example, alone) is replaced with a rhyming phrase (for example, Pat Malone). If you were sent to Coventry for lagging or for failing to keep nit on a screw, you might be forced to eat in the dining room on your Pat Malone.
Of course, if you're serious about expanding your vocabulary — beyond mere slang — you could always try the award-winning vocabulary-improvement software, Ultimate Vocabulary ;) If you improve your vocabulary, you might even understand why male prisoner warder Jim Fletcher is called "Fletch the Letch" (hint: it's because the women thought he was lecherous) and what inmate Ettie Parslow really meant when she complained of a "Dewey Decimal ulcer".
Or you can just enjoy another reason why Prisoner: Cell Block H is one of the best tv shows ever made.
*Denise and I recommend only products that we have tried and tested. These include Ultimate Vocabulary. We have agreed to receive a commission from some sales of the Ultimate Vocabulary software because we are happy to endorse this award-winning vocabulary software.