Green’s Dictionary of Slang

third degree n.

[the first and second degrees of interrogation are never specified]
(orig. US Und.)

1. (also three degrees, fourth degree) the beating up and similar physical abuse of suspects by policemen in order to extract confessions; although allegedly outlawed in the last couple of decades reality proves otherwise.

[US]G.W. Walling Recollections 189: This indicates that the prisoner is going to pass a bad quarter of an hour, or what is known in police slang as ‘getting the third degree.’.
[US]A.H. Lewis Boss 263: Dis Captain t’rows her d’ big chest, see! an’ says he’ll give her d’ t’ree degrees if she don’t cough up d’ tip.
[US]S. Ford Torchy, Private Sec. 165: He’s had the third degree good and strong [...] He won’t squeal.
[US]P. & T. Casey Gay-cat 65: As soon as a bull gives him th’ third degree, a kid will toin stool an’ peach on us guns.
[US]J. Lait Put on the Spot 112: ‘He coughed up his guts.’ ‘I don’t believe it,’ snapped Gleason. ‘We gave him the fourth degree.’.
[US]C. Himes ‘Prison Mass’ in Coll. Stories (1990) 171: Then had followed a third degree — the dirty rats. His feet handcuffed together, his body suspended head-downward from an open door, hanging from the chain across his ankles.
[UK]‘Josphine Tey’ Shilling for Candles 34: Have you been giving him the third degree [...] You’re police, aren’t you?
[US]F. Swados House of Fury (1959) 137: You think they give ’em the third degree? ... Maybe they hit ’em with a rubber hose.
[US]M. Spillane One Lonely Night 32: In this country force is never used. The so-called third degree has been swept out.
[US]J.Q. Wilson Police Behavior 47: [T]he ‘third degree’ [...] was once the form of violence most commonly referred to in both popular and serious studies of police work.
[UK](con. 1961) J. Rosenthal Spend, Spend, Spend Scene 72: It’s like the third degree in this house!
[UK]J. Sullivan ‘Wanted’ Only Fools and Horses [TV script] You ever seen some of them detectives give someone the third degree on the telly?
[US]H. Roth From Bondage 380: He didn’t expect me to hold up under a third degree. You know, that’s when the cops grill you, beat the hell out of you to make you confess.
[Aus]C. Hammer Scrublands [ebook] Mandy is with the cops, getting the third degree.

2. attrib. use of sense 1.

Journal of the Amer. Instit. Criminal Law and Criminology I 107: In spite of the emphatic and persistent denials of the police, ‘third degree’ methods, he asserts, are generally practiced by the American police.
[US]Eve. Star (Wash., DC) 6 June 39/2: We ain’t third-degree men.
[US]E.E. Cummings Enormous Room (1928) 40: I was at the time innocent of third degree methods.
[US]W.M. Raine Cool Customer 126: The public expects you to get results or be fired, but if you put pressure on suspects the dear people are horrified at third degree methods.
[US]C. Himes Big Gold Dream 58: Third degree methods were useful, but they couldn’t beat the truth out of everybody.
(ref. to 1910s–20s) G.D. Lassiter Interrogations, Confessions, and Entrapment 55: During these same two decades (1910s and 1920s) [...] The suspicion of third degree methods was always in the air.

3. used fig., referring to intense questioning but devoid of physical abuse.

[US]Sun (NY) 27 July 40/2: Cashiers [...] have all heard of the pay-off, and when a depositer wants to draw down a lot of cash they give him the third degree.
[US]Van Loan ‘Mister Conley’ Score by Innings (2004) 423: When the boss picks out a new man we give him the third degree; and if he stands the acid [...] we let him in.
[UK]‘Leslie Charteris’ Enter the Saint 105: We’ll do some third degree on him later.
[US]W.R. Burnett Little Men, Big World 109: If Arky wanted to tell him, he would; if not, a third degree wouldn’t help.
[US](con. 1940s) Malcolm X Autobiog. (1968) 149: Every time I saw Ella [...] she turned on the third degree.
[UK]P. Theroux Picture Palace 232: I didn’t come down here to get the third degree.
[US]N. Pileggi Wiseguy (2001) 60: She would start the third degree right there on the phone [...] I couldn’t stand being yelled at.
[UK]Guardian G2 18 Nov. 12: When I ring his agent about two pictures that claim to be of Spacey and his wife, I’m given the third degree.
[UK](con. 1990s) N. ‘Razor’ Smith A Few Kind Words and a Loaded Gun 404: Howard was given the third-degree about it all on BBC’s Newsnight.
[US](con. 1973) C. Stella Johnny Porno 84: Jesus, can’t a guy have a few bucks on him without a third degree?

4. attrib. use of sense 3.

[US]A. Stringer Door of Dread 7: I don’t quite get yuh [...] And what’s the game, anyway, wit’ all this third-degree stuff?
[US]R. Chandler Lady in the Lake (1952) 23: I’ve had enough of your third degree tripe.
[UK]‘Henry Green’ Loving (1978) 155: Well this was not exactly a pleasant experience Madam. More like the third degree Madam.
[Can]J. Mandelkau Buttons 35: My friends [...] didn’t appreciate having to go through a third degree routine to get to see me.
[Ire]J. Morrow Confessions of Proinsias O’Toole 96: Towering over him in the best third degree tradition.
[US]R. Price Clockers 335: The kid’s mother was supposed to be a third-degree artist.