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The American Malefactor’s Dictionary: air and exercise

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air and exercise

– 1. a short term of imprisonment, hence “two stretches of air and exercise” means two years in prison; 2. working in the stone quarry at Blackwell’s Island or at Sing Sing.

State Prison at Sing Sing, New York, 1855 (Source:

State Prison at Sing Sing, New York, 1855 (Source:

In England, air and exercise originally referred to someone being whipped at the cart’s tail or, as it was more vulgarly expressed, “at the cart’s arse.” It could also refer to serving punishment in a revolving pillory. A revolving pillory consisted of four pillories attached to a central revolving post, so that the prisoners could be made to walk in a circle and enable spectators to see and abuse them from all angles. The phrase later referred to penal servitude in a convict settlement, and this version is the one that crossed over to America. The second, more specific, definition is from Matsell (1859), and both references are to New York prisons. Blackwell’s Island is now known as Roosevelt Island.


  • Barrère, Albert and Charles G. Leland. A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon, and Cant. [London]: The Ballantyne Press, 1889.
  • Grose, Francis and Egan Pierce. Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. Revised and Corrected. London: Printed for Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, 1823.
  • Farmer, John S. and W. E. Henley. A Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English. Abridged from Slang and Its Analogues. London: George Routledge and Sons, 1912.
  • Matsell, George W. Vocabulum: Or, the Rogue’s Lexicon.. New York: George W. Matsell, 1859.
  • Partridge, Eric. A Dictionary of the Underworld. New York: Bonanza Books, 1961.

Note: See “Cant: The Language of the Underworld” to learn more about the background of the American Malefactor’s Dictionary.

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