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.
[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.
‘Josphine Tey’ Shilling for Candles (1958) 34: Have you been giving him the third degree [...] You’re police, aren’t you?
[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.

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.
[UK]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.