Saturday, January 21, 2012


Shank \shangk\ , noun;
1. Prison slang: An improvised stabbing device
1. Prison slang: To be stabbed, especially in the back

Yesterday's post on shiv got me thinking about shank. Surprisingly, to me at least, it's not in the Oxford English Dictionary! Okay, shank is obviously in the dictionary, the OED lists 54 definitions, not including compound words. BUT, it does not include the prison slang definition I was looking for. So, I get to play etymologist today and offer my theories:

1. It comes from the usage "the slender part between the flattened handle and the bowl of a spoon" because perhaps early shanks were made by mutilating spoons.

2. Another usage "the part of a knife, chisel, etc. which is inserted into the handle" is a more likely culprit.

3. Maybe the verb usage to shank meaning "to stab" came first, based on the definition "to cause to walk off," which could be extended to "to cause someone to go away by killing them."

4. There is a dialectal meaning "the latter end or part of anything", so there could be a connection between that and the idea of stabbing someone in the back.

Now that I look at it, I like #4 the best, but I think all are plausible.

As far as non-slang shank, it comes from Old English sceanca, which is related to a bunch of Germanic words and probably derives from Proto-Germanic *skankon-. *Skankon possibly literally means "that which bends" from Proto-Indo-European *skeng- ("crooked").

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