Language of the Blues: SHANK

confiscated prison shanks
confiscated prison shanks

This is the latest installment of our weekly series The Language of the Blues, in which author and rock musician Debra Devi explores the meaning of a word or phrase found in the blues.

Grab a signed copy of Devi’s entertaining & award-winning glossary The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu (Foreword by Dr. John) at Also available as an eBook.

In the 1800s, shank referred to the long shaft of the metal keys that were common at the time. When sharpened to a point, a key shank made a nasty weapon. Linguists speculate that this may be the origin of the slang use of shank to refer to a handmade knife.

Prison inmates are notorious for crafting deadly shanks out of seemingly harmless objects. A shank can be made by melting the end of a toothbrush and inserting a razor blade into the plastic while it is still soft, for example, or by filing the handle of a spoon to a sharp point. A company called Securitas sells a line of No-Shank products for prisons, including the No-Shank Mirror and the No-Shank Toothbrush.

According to musician Dr. John, “shankings,” or stabbings, were fairly common incidents in some of the rougher gutbucket joints a person might wander into for some blues and a drink, hence the nickname “bucket of blood,” for these types of establishments.

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“Shank” – Bo Diddley

Bo Diddley – “Shank”