Green’s Dictionary of Slang

life n.

1. as abbr. of SE life sentence.

(a) imprisonment for a life sentence; thus life (up) v., to imprison for life.

[UK] ‘Six Years in the Prisons of England’ in Temple Bar Mag. Dec. 76: I got ‘copt’ again, however, and was sent back to do ‘life’.
[UK]Leicester Chron. 2 Aug. 12/2: ‘That got us both sent for life.’ ‘Penal servitude for life?’.
[UK]Bird o’ Freedom 15 Jan. 2/4: She’s there for life!
[US]Flynt & Walton Powers That Prey 178: See what they did with Bidwell when he made that Bank o’ England touch in the early seventies. Gave him life!
[UK]A.G. Empey Over the Top 78: It all depends where you are as to what you are called. In France they call you a ‘bomber’ and give you medals, while in neutral countries they call you an anarchist and give you ‘life’.
[US]J. Callahan Man’s Grim Justice in Hamilton Men of the Und. 268: A Southern murderer [...] who was doing life.
[US]R. Chandler ‘Goldfish’ in Red Wind (1946) 148: All they got was him. He got life.
[US]W.R. Burnett Asphalt Jungle in Four Novels (1984) 130: He got life, but that could mean ten years.
[UK]J. Curtis Look Long Upon a Monkey 188: Ain’t Ray doing life?
[UK]E. Bond Saved Scene x: So ’elp me I’ll land yer so bloody ’ard they’ll put me back for life.
[US]G.V. Higgins Patriot Game (1985) 24: He’s doing life for that thing and he doesn’t like it.
[UK]J. Cameron Vinnie Got Blown Away 33: Dad was doing life.
[UK]Guardian 3 Feb. 11: Briton gets life for weapons drop in India.

(b) in fig. use, i.e. something long-term and permanent but not in prison context.

[US]R. Price Blood Brothers 17: I ain’t never gonna live here. I live in fuckin’ Co-op City an’ that’s straight life.

2. constr. with the.

(a) the world of prostitution.

‘Peter Aretine’ Strange Newes 2: Peg. I meet with merry Hectors [...] they give me Pye-corner Law and Pye-corner Pay, and I am contented to the life.
[UK]Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies 27: There is no ascertaining her price [...] and her commodity [...] is always knock’d down to the highest bidder. She has not been in life more than two years.
J.W. McGill Loving-Kindness 79: [note] ‘Nothing but sheer starvation would have forced me to the life,‘ said a girl of eighteen, the other day, who had twice been Mistress of a ‘gay house’.
[US]C.B. Chrysler White Slavery 27: The girl expressed her willingness to enter the life.
[US](con. 1880s–90s) H. Asbury Gangs of Chicago (2002) 121: Then they [i.e. fledgling prostitutes] were broken in to what in red-light circles was known as ‘the life.’.
[US]N. Algren Never Come Morning (1988) 202: I weighed a hunderd [sic] thirty-four before I entered the Life.
[US]Murtagh & Harris Cast the First Stone 111: Why should prostitutes spend their hard-earned money on men who seemingly give them so little in return? [...] They shrug their shoulders [...] and tell you that that’s ‘the life.’.
[US] in S. Harris Hellhole 190: Louise [...] would learn from bitter experience after she grew more accustomed to ‘the life.’.
[US]Hall & Adelman Gentleman of Leisure 40: Lisa had been in the life.
[US]A.K. Shulman On the Stroll 134: I’ve known hookers who’ve gotten so sick they’ve had to leave the life.
[US]R. Campbell Sweet La-La Land (1999) 38: Why the hell else did anybody think whores call it the life? Because they like it.
[US]W.T. Vollmann Royal Family 317: [fn] ‘In the life’ usually means being a prostitute, but is sometimes used to refer to other street activities such as pimping, drug pushing, fencing stolen goods, etcetera.

(b) (UK Und.) the professional criminal underworld.

MacBrayne & Ramsay One More Chance 94: But if it never did pay, why did you so often return to the life?
[US](con. 1964–8) J. Ellroy Cold Six Thousand 20: The Boys are talking and they’re saying he’s lost his taste for the Life.
[US](con. 1960s) J. Ellroy Blood’s a Rover 17: Wayne got a walk on the killings. It left him hollow. He quit the PD and entered The Life. Soldier of fortune. Heroin runner. Assassin.

(c) (US black) the subculture of petty crime, pimping, drug dealing etc that makes up the alternative world of the streets.

[US]N. Heard Howard Street 161: It was an integral part of the Life, and she’d known the Life from childhood.
[US]D. Goines Street Players 81: A good prostitute could just about choose any man she wanted who was in the life.
[US]Tarantino & Avery Pulp Fiction [film script] 146: ‘You’re really gonna quit?’ ‘The life, most definitely.’.
[UK]J.J. Connolly Layer Cake 12: We’ve got a Junior-Yuppie-Mafia thang going down, living the life, with JPG suits, Suzuki jeeps, Champagne and whistle all the way.
[US]G. Pelecanos Night Gardener 101: Darwinism put in motion by those in the life.

(d) (US gay) the world of homosexuality.

[US]D.W. Cory Homosexual in America 90: The estimate will seem conservative rather than large to those of us who are ‘in the life’.
[US]Guild Dict. Homosexual Terms 24: in the life (adj.): Being in the gay (homosexual) subculture, committed to its activities and association with its members.
[UK]J. Colebrook Cross of Lassitude 103: The oblique and penetrating language of the life. ‘Broad, give me some sky ...’ ‘Nothing doing. I’ll go freak off with another Jasper. Both of us go for what we know...’.
[US]B. Rodgers Queens’ Vernacular.
[US]Maledicta IX 144: The U.K. hustler is in the life, an iron (from ‘iron hoof,’ rhymes with pouf = U.S. fag).
[US]R. Scott Rebecca’s Dict. of Queer Sl. [Internet] in the life — being out as queer and living in the queer community.

(e) (US drugs) the world of drug addiction.

[US]R.R. Lingeman Drugs from A to Z (1970) 142: life, the The drug addict’s characteristic life pattern, revolving around hustling, copping (see cop), the fix, interaction with fellow addicts, dealing with pushers, and so on.
[US]M. Agar Ripping and Running 161: The Life – Life of a heroin addict.
[US]N. Thornburg Cutter and Bone (2001) 20: And the drugs — I was in the life myself for a few years, so I have some idea what it cost him.

In compounds

lifeboat (n.) (also life liner, lifesaver)

(US prison) a pardon or the commutation of a sentence.

[US]J. Sullivan ‘Criminal Sl.’ in Amer. Law Rev. LII (1918) 891: A ‘lifeboat’ is a pardon.
[US]G. Henderson Keys to Crookdom 410: Life boat. A reprieve or pardon. [Ibid.] 343: Release from prison, life boat, life liner, saver.
[US]San Quentin Bulletin in L.A. Times 6 May 7: LIFEBOAT, a pardon, a commutation of sentence.
[US]Monteleone Criminal Sl. (rev. edn).
[US]Goldin et al. DAUL 125/1: Life-boat. (P., rare) A pardon or commutation of sentence; a stay of execution in capital punishment cases.
[US]Bentley & Corbett Prison Sl. 105: When an inmate who has been sentenced to death gets his death sentence overturned or commuted to a life sentence, it is said that he got a ‘lifeboat.’.

In phrases

life off (v.) (also life up)

(UK Und.) to give someone a life sentence.

[UK]J.J. Connolly Layer Cake 221: How fucked up is that, geezers getting lifed-off doing less bird?
[UK]N. Griffiths Stump 35: Should be fuckin inside, you! Shoulda got fuckin lifed up!
life on the installment plan (n.)

(US Und.) a succession of sentences as served, with periods of freedom, by a recidivist; thus on the installment plan phr.

[US]Wash. Post 11 Nov. Miscellany 3/6: The vendor [of bad cheques] is the ‘layer’ who from all accounts does life on the installment plan so hazardous has become his vocation.
[US]J. Callahan Man’s Grim Justice 5: He was doing a life term [...] on the installment plan. He was in to-day and out to-morrow, in and out for ten or twelve years.
[US]Monteleone Criminal Sl. (rev. edn).
[US]Goldin et al. DAUL 125/1: Life on the installment plan. 1. Successive parole violations and return to prison. [...] 2. Recidivism.
[US]D. Pearce Cool Hand Luke (1967) 8: I too have committed my crime [...] the one which has put me in debt to Society and which I am gradually paying off on the installment plan.
[US]Bentley & Corbett Prison Sl. 28: Life on the Installment Plan Coming back to prison repeatedly. ‘Hey Hank, back again? What are you doing, life on the installment plan?’.
[US]J. Lerner You Got Nothing Coming 207: Narducci, a real hard case doing Life on the Installment Plan.

SE in slang uses

In compounds

lifejacket (n.)

(US campus) a condom.

[US] P. Munro Sl. U.
[US]K. Kainulainen ‘University Euphemisms in Calif. Today’ [Internet] You do not have to use the word ‘condom’ if you know the innocent-sounding words ‘lifejacket’, ‘raincoat’ or ‘party hat’.
life preserver (n.)

1. the penis [pun on SE life preserver, a loaded bludgeon].

[UK]Farmer & Henley Sl. and Its Analogues.
[UK]Farmer Vocabula Amatoria (1966) 59: Chair, f. The penis; ‘the life-preserver’.

2. (US) a doughnut [resemblance to SE life preserver, a life-buoy].

[US]Sun (NY) 28 Mar. 2/6: The doughnuts [...] have been honored with the new title of ‘life preservers’.
[US]Coconino Sun (Flagstaff, AZ) 26 Dec. 2/3: Railroad Eating House Lingo [...] ‘Cut the cowcar off the java train,’ continued the boomer, [...] ‘and switch me a couple of life preservers’.
[US]Eve. Public Ledger (Phila., PA) 17 May 8/5: The correct name for those round life-preserver shaped pastries is ‘doughnuts’.
[US]F.H. Hubbard Railroad Avenue 326: Switch me a coupla life preservers.

In phrases

life in London (adj.)

see separate entry.

life of Larry (n.)

see separate entry.

life of Riley (n.)

see separate entry.

not on your life (also not on your life insurance, not on yours, ...your sweet life)
[UK]Nottingham Eve. Post 12 Feb. 5/5: Not-on-your-life! Miss Knowall.
[US]C.H. Hoyt A Milk White Flag Act I: lieut.: And are they to know you’re not dead? luce: Not on your life.
[US]A.H. Lewis ‘Red Mike’ in Sandburrs 57: Nit! Not on your life insurance!
[US]Flynt & Walton Powers That Prey 213: ‘Suppose you let me put my hands down.’ ‘Not on your life.’.
[US]O. Johnson Varmint 97: Not on your life!
[UK]Wodehouse Psmith Journalist (1993) 174: ‘Not on your life, sonny,’ he said.
[Aus]K.S. Prichard Working Bullocks 263: Not me ... not on your life, Boss!
[UK]J.B. Booth London Town 103: ‘Not on your life!’ was the little lady’s curt reply.
[Aus]K. Tennant Foveaux 263: Do I go gettin’ dressed up and drillin’? Not on yer sweet life.
[UK]‘Henry Green’ Loving (1978) 146: ‘You mean he said that the ring was stolen?’ Miss Burch cried [...] ‘Not on your life,’ Charlie took her up.
[UK]Derby Dly Teleg. 4 Oct. 5/2: They do not. Not on your life.
[US]E. Dundy Dud Avocado (1960) 137: Not on your sweet life.
[Aus]P. White Burnt Ones 129: I’m not gunna stand around exchanging words with any long-haired nong [...] Not on yours!
[Aus]F.J. Hardy Yarns of Billy Borker 23: One bloke suggested he should send his kids to the university. ‘What,’ he answered. ‘And turn them into toffs and scabs? Not on your bloody life.’.
[Aus]D. Ireland Burn 56: Ever swallowed a grub? Not on yer sweet life you haven’t.
[UK]P. Theroux Picture Palace 63: I thought: Not on your life, sister.
[Aus]G. Seal Lingo 197: it’s not on expresses disagreement and dissatisfaction as do not on your life.
way of life (n.) [euph.]

the profession of prostitution.

[UK] ‘Miscellaneous’ in Fancy I IV 102: Then, vie should anybody as happens to be poor, or in the way of life, be put upon by this Alldeman Vood; so help me Bob!
[UK]‘Jon Bee’ Dict. of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase, etc. 191: ‘Way of life’ (the) — a state of prostitution.

In exclamations

on my life! (also upon my life!)

an affirmation of absolute truth in the face of an audience’s scepticism.

[UK]C.M. Westmacott Eng. Spy I 190: For cabriolets she’s the dame, / A dasher, on my life.
[UK] ‘Wonderful Times’ in Holloway & Black II (1979) 223: An Old sailor dwelt in Windsor, it’s true upon my life.
[UK]Cheltenham Chron. 13 Mar. 6/1: ‘If it is not so I will cross my breath,’ means, among boys, an oath [...] equivalent to ‘on my life!’.
[UK]Western Times 24 Dec. 8/1: Well, you’d never believe, but he did — on my life — that impudent rascal kissed my own wife.
[UK]J. Curtis Gilt Kid 53: God’s truth. On my life.
[UK]‘P.B. Yuill’ Hazell and the Three-card Trick (1977) 74: Jim Hazell pon my life [...] ain’t seen you in donkey’s.