15 March 2022

Courting Words

    "America and England are one people separated by a common language." Winston Churchill said it Or perhaps George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, or William Shakespeare
depending upon the website you go to. I thought of the quote the other day while reflecting upon my time as a prosecutor. I spent about nine years working in Dallas County before moving to become a prosecutor in Fort Worth. Thirty miles, give or take, separate the two courthouses. They both operate out of the same penal code, rules of criminal procedure, and evidentiary requirements, yet the local language of both jurisdictions differ. As folks who think about language, I'd like to take a few minutes and consider some examples. 

    When I started in Dallas, the chief prosecutor of the court to which I had been assigned would often talk about the "hook." He used "hook" as a synonym for criminal, but not just any defendant. The word "old" preceded "hook" either implicitly or explicitly. A hook had to have been through the system a few times. They were usually charged with property crimes. They were always male. (I've dealt with a few female "hookers" but that's something different.) A hook by occupation or misfortune was one of those frequent fliers we see in the criminal justice system. We used the term in Dallas. I've not heard it in Fort Worth. 

    The term can be misused. Early on in my career, I wanted to sound like a real prosecutor. I recall asking a long-time defense attorney, "what did your hook do?" His "hook" was an 18-year old first-time offender. The lawyer gave me a look that said I wasn't coming across as a grizzled prosecutor, but rather a kid wearing dad's clothes. (It wasn't the last time as an assistant district attorney that I ran roughshod over the language. Perhaps we'll discuss that in another post.)

Joe Gratz, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

When I moved to the district attorney's office in 
Fort Worth, I heard talk during docket planning about "True-but." It sounded like a name you might find in the filing cabinet right before "Truman." We didn't use the term in Dallas, and you won't find it in any legal code. 

    Here is where it occurs. Let's assume that Defendant Dewayne has been sentenced to community supervision (probation). Defendant Dewayne has failed to report to his probation officer as required. The district attorney seeks to revoke Dewayne's probation. Defendant Dewayne may contest the revocation and force the government to prove the violation. (That's pretty easy to do in the case of reporting. The probation department keeps records of that sort of thing.) Instead, Defendant Dewayne might admit to the violation. In the legal parlance, he pleads "true" to the allegations. Dewayne may admit to the violation but feel that he can explain this big misunderstanding that landed him in jail. He wants to present his justification as part of the plea. It is true...but here is why. 

    We had the concept in Dallas, I imagine all jurisdictions do. We didn't have the term. We fumbled for a description. True-but is precisely what occurs. 

    Under Texas sentencing, by statute, felony crimes may be punished more severely if the prosecutor alleges and proves that the defendant had on one or two prior occasions been sent to the penitentiary. In the Fort Worth courthouse, the defendant is "repped." He or she has been pled as a repeat offender. In Dallas, they're "bitched." A defendant is either "low-bitched" or "high-bitched," depending on whether he or she faces one or two enhancement allegations. 

    The etymology of "bitched" in this context is, I believe, straightforward. A defendant with two prior enhancements is susceptible to being labeled a "habitual offender." Here in Texas, vowels have never been our strong suit. It is a short step from "habitual" to "high-bitch." And if "high-bitch" is two enhancements, then a single enhancement is just lower than that. Logical, ain't it? 

    Of course it also let us throw profanity around in public. It makes us sound tough and gritty. That's always appealing to people who wear suits for a living. 

Until next time. 


  1. Love the post. I always love to hear slang that only insiders know.

  2. A little humor in the day helps keep the wheels turning.

  3. >Here in Texas, vowels have never been our strong suit.

    (laughing) And who says Texans ain't subtle.

    Mark, I'm fascinated by the behind-the-scenes goings on. Your true-but reminded me of teachers who'd say, "Don't yes-but me!"

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>