Skip to content

Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

perp walk

(1990’s | journalese | “frog march,” “duck walk,” “gauntlet”)

The act itself is objectionable to any American who takes the Bill of Rights seriously. Police march a suspect in shackles through a posse of reporters and photographers, who try to get him to say something incriminating or at least look guilty. Part of the purpose is planting the arrestee’s guilt in the public mind. Or it’s simply a way for the cops to get back at someone they don’t like. Parading criminals in front of crowds is a very old custom indeed, but the perp walk differs in two crucial respects. First, they are designed solely for the benefit of journalists, who act as stand-ins for the mobs of old. Second, they take place before guilt has been legally established. Most of us don’t get upset when a child pornographer or wealthy asshole is subjected to a perp walk, but as always, caution about giving the police too much rein is indicated. Presumption of guilt is insidious, and this expression perpetuates it shamelessly. There’s no snappy abbreviation of “accused” or “alleged,” I guess. “Susp” does not roll off the tongue.

“Perp walk” entered the mainstream somewhere around the mid-1990’s. There was no precise older equivalent, to my knowledge; if there was, it was pretty specialized. It might have been called, with grim irony, a “photo opportunity,” but I never heard anyone use that phrase that way. (Then I learned that the New York Post did call it a “photo op” a few months ago, so now I have. Who says writing a blog isn’t educational?) Several sources agree that the practice itself dates back decades, but the term “perp walk” does not appear in LexisNexis before 1986. My guess is that like “road rage,” the signifier grew more common because the signified grew more common. I’m not sure how far the rise of “reality” cop shows in the early nineties pushed “perp walk” into prominence. (Shouldn’t we have a reality show made up of nothing but footage of perp walks?) The phrase can’t be much older than that, because “perp” isn’t much older. It was almost certainly in use among police officers before 1980, but it was primarily a New York term throughout that decade; “perp” doesn’t seem to have become widespread until 1990. Its main advantage is that it’s short and memorable, but its lack of associations and baggage is also useful. Not a neutral term, exactly, but not as fraught as “accused,” “criminal,” or “con.”

Even after twenty years, “perp walk” has little if any figurative use. Here’s one instance, but it’s little removed from the literal: “chaplains and psychologists are housed together with the troops, so that a guy seeking mental health counseling doesn’t have to make the long ‘perp walk’ up the street past his buddies to the therapist’s office” (Huffington Post, April 29, 2016). It could stand in for any process that casts suspicion on someone, or even an invasion of privacy by the government or the press, but nothing like that has taken hold. “Raid,” “witch hunt,” “hounding” — all metaphors once — have become more or less standard terms. “Perp walk” shows little sign of going the other way.

Here’s a phrase that should be but isn’t: “perp school.” It’s when a juvenile is placed in an adult prison. No, wait, “Perp Walk” is a street name on Fire Island. Or how about “Under the perp walk, Down by the jail, Marched down the street in handcuffs, Gonna ride a rail.” I’m beginning to see why “perp walk” remains solidly literal — it doesn’t lend itself to plays on words, or any kind of play.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: