Q: Why have I never found anybody from outside New Jersey who knows what “in stir” means? We of NJ have a soft spot for those in the slammer or merely busted, like Snooki and Ronnie on “Jersey Shore.”
A: As we’re sure you realize, New Jersey doesn’t have a monopoly on “in stir” or “in the stir.”
In fact, it doesn’t even come from New Jersey. The phrase was first recorded in England, and has been used with or without the article “the” since the late 1800s. Here’s the story.
The word “stir” has been used as a noun for a prison since the mid-19th century, according to Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang. That much we can be sure about.
The word was sometimes spelled “stur” and originated in the Romany words sturiben (a prison) and staripen (to imprison), Cassell’s says.
A 19th-century source, A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant, first published in London in 1889, says “stir” comes from staripen, adding that “stardo in gypsy means ‘imprisoned.’ ”
This dictionary, edited by Albert Barrère and Charles G. Leland, calls “stir” an abbreviation of a longer slang word for a prison, spelled “sturbin” in the US and “sturiben” in Britain.
The Oxford English Dictionary, however, seems to disagree, saying the origin of the slang term “stir” is unknown. The OED doesn’t say why it rejects the Romany origin.
But the modern verb “stir,” from the Old English verb styrian, has also had negative meanings over the years: to make a disturbance, to cause trouble, to revolt, to provoke, and so on.
Such activities could of course land a person in jail (or “in chokey,” as P. G. Wodehouse liked to say).
But those old meanings are now rare or obscure for the most part, except in the sense of “stir things up,” which isn’t always a bad thing to do.
In the journal Modern Language Notes in 1934, J. Louis Kuethe argued in favor of the Romany etymology.
“Staripen, steripen, and stiraben have all been given as spellings of the Romani word for ’prison,’ ” he writes. “When these variations are taken into account, the Gypsy origin of stir is quite acceptable phonetically.”
Since the slang term originated in the mid-19th century, Kuethe says, “it seems much more plausible that the word should have originated from a contemporary source such as the Romani, rather than from the Old English styr which disappeared centuries ago.”
Wherever it came from, everyone agrees that the word first showed up in print in 1851.
That’s the year of the OED’s first citation, which comes from a collection of articles and interviews by Henry Mayhew entitled London Labour and the London Poor.
The quotation: “I was in Brummagem, and was seven days in the new ‘stir’ (prison).” The term “Brummagem” was a local nickname for the English city of Birmingham.
Soon, however, the phrase “in stir” (without the article) was the usual slang term for “in prison.”
This OED citation is from A Child of the Jago, Arthur Morrison’s 1896 novel about the slums of London: “A man has time to think things out, in stir.”
And as we all know, someone sitting in prison is likely to go “stir crazy,” a term the OED traces back to 1908.
[Updated May 5, 2017.]