Thursday, November 29, 2012

Shiv vs. Shank

What is the difference between a "shiv" and a "shank?" Also, can you be "shanked with a shiv" or "shivved with a shank?" Good questions indeed...
First to consider is definition. The World English Dictionary defines a shiv as both a noun (“a knife”) and a verb (“to stab (someone)”). The WED goes on to suggest that the term has origins in Romany dialect (Romany referring to gypsies from region in and around Romania/Moldova). More modern provenance of the term “shiv,” particular to the use as prison slang, is disputed. In terms of improvised weapons, one derivation for the meaning might have originated as an acronym standing for “Self-Honed-Instrument-of-Violence (SHIV). This seems highly possible, as code-words are often used in a prison atmosphere as to prevent discovery of nefarious plots by Corrections Officers. Another plausible origin lies with 20th century English thieves’ term “chive”or possibly some cockney slang of the period.
The term shank, on the other hand, has more traditional roots in the English language (one derived from the German shanke [leg]), referring first to human anatomy – the shank being either the part of the leg between the knee and ankle, or to the leg as a whole, from thigh to ankle. Interestingly, conversion from a noun to a verb is a more modern construction, one that is foremost associated with golf (and later adopted by other sports). Important to the discussion here is the proper definition of a shanked shot, which, according the, is “a golf shot which hit’s the club’s hosel” (a hosel being the narrow end of the club’s shaft, located just above the club head). A detail curious enough to note is the traditional shape of a golf club’s shaft, which, much like the shank of a leg, tapers from top to bottom.
In modern slang, the two are most often used interchangeably, in much the same way that the nouns “cemetery” and “graveyard”are used to describe a place of rest for the dead. The amalgamated origins behind the use of the term “shiv”, combined with a verbal evolution which freely alternates between the two has led to a wholly confused usage in the modern American dialect.
Despite the seemingly interchangeable properties of the terms, the heart of their differences lies in the definitions. A “shiv” is defined as a knife. A knife, in turn, is defined as “an instrument for cutting, consisting essentially of a thin, sharp-edged, metal blade fitted with a handle.” Thus, through transitive logic, a shiv is an instrument designed for cutting or slicing in the same fashion as a knife.
Given the previous description of items related to the noun “shank”(those being items which taper from large to small), it becomes clear that the noun “shank” more specifically refers to an elongated item which tapers to a point and is thus is primarily used for stabbing.
Similarly, the verb “to shiv” translates as “to slice” or “to knife”while the verb “to shank” correlates with “to stab.”
While perhaps acceptable in common speech, in proper grammar the two are entirely different. As with “cemetery”and “graveyard,” their differences are pronounced enough so as to derive a clear delineation between the two (A graveyard traditionally refers to an area surrounding a church or place of worship where the dead were buried, while a cemetery was on a separate tract of land, often in a rural or secluded area separate from the living population.
The oft-erroneous Wikipedia has only added to the muddling of definitions by describing a shiv as “a crudely made homemade knife out of everyday materials, especially prevalent in prisons among inmates. An alternate name in some prisons is Shank.” Likewise, Urban Dictionary confuses the two by claiming that each instrument is defined by the material from which it is fashioned, that “a shiv is typically made of wood, plastic or glass,” while a shank is “a homemade knife made of metal.”
As we have seen, both definitions are wholly erroneous; each weapon is defined by its shape and thusly its method of attack, which means that either can be made from any source material, given that it’s end result is either slicing or stabbing. A shard of glass, however it is broken off, might function to either slice or stab, while a piece of wood most easily could be fashioned into a stabbing shank. Depending on its original shape and thickness, metal can be made into either.
At this point, with a clear delineation having been made between the two, the conversation is not ended, for at the heart of this matter lies this question: have the verbs become as freely interchangeable as the nouns in the popular lexicon? Indeed, can one be “shanked with a shiv?,” and conversely, can one be “shivved with a shank?” Perhaps both? Perhaps neither?
In all aforementioned cases the answer is technically yes. However, in order for such as statement to be considered grammatically correct, said weapon would have to be used in a manner either improper or counter to its intended design. A shank is meant for shanking; a shiv is meant for shivving. As an example to better demonstrate the oddity of the confusion, switching verbs would be akin to saying that someone was knifed with a spoon, or spooned with a knife. While both are technically possible, they are also two entirely separate acts (and also occurrences not likely to happen in reality), and probably not what the speaker intended to mean.  
In terms of the probability of one or the other, consider this: a knife is an edged weapon; the inclusion of a point, while a common occurrence, is not required to meet the definition of the term, and the same should hold true for shiv (consider the butter knife - slices through butter, but with a rounded tip ). While the addition of a point to the tip of a shiv might be advantageous, it is not necessary for the implement to meet its defined function as a slicing weapon .
Likewise, a shank, being primarily a stabbing weapon, would most likely not include the added function of a sharpened edge. While such added refinement might heighten it’s utility as a weapon, it should be remembered that it is most often an improvised weapon produced under certain constraints which to not lend themselves to unnecessary (and time-consuming) modifications. The shiv suffers from these same limitations.
Furthermore, one would do well to consider such modifications in terms of individual production time. As both weapons are meant to be 1.) easily concealable and 2.) effectively sharp, traditionally most are long and thin. But it is far easier, in terms of surface area, to file the end of a shiv into a serviceably sharp point than it would be to file the length of a shank into a serviceably sharp blade. Even without intentional modifications it seems more likely that a shiv would naturally be inclined to have a point capable of inflicting significant damage while a shank would most likely not have an edge sharp enough to inflict as much damage as it’s refined point.
Therefore it would stand to reason that of the two, the knife-like shiv would be more prone to be misused to stab/shank a person, as opposed to a pointed shank being misused to slice/cut/shiv an opponent. Thus, you would be more likely to be “shanked with a shiv” than “shivved with a shank.”


  1. Thank you! It's a damn shame because I feel like "shivved with a shank" rolls off the tongue so easily!

  2. This may be the greatest explanation for anything that I have ever read. My buddy and I were debating this very issue, and we found Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary sorely lacking. Much thanks to you for the well-researched and thoughtful article on a topic on which others have only lazily opined!

  3. Thank you, I've been pondering the question since someone (wromgly) corrected my use of one of the words and proceeded try to define the difference stating one was a verb the other a noun.

    Wonder how shivs and shanks find their way into polite conversation?!!??

  4. The term "shank" comes from the steel shanks inside the soles of boots. This is a flat piece of metal that was accessible and easily fashioned into a weapon. Prisoners versions of boots have not been made with steel shanks for quite some time for this reason. However the slang term "shank" remained over the years.

  5. i appreciate your articulation in explanation, however your comparison is too differentiated. One would be better to say "knifed with a fork/forked with a knife" as a spoon has no harmful potential without modification(except for the handle possibly). But still good job with the composition.

    1. That reasoning in the piece is nonsense, but not for the reason you give.
      It's more simple. You can be cut or stabbed by many objects, but you can only be knifed by a knife and only spooned by a spoon (or by someone who wants to snuggle). You can't be forked by anything other than a fork, except for maybe a trident (which is just a big fork).
      The Shiv/Shank differentiation stands to reason, but gives no sources for many of the 'facts' or even fully transcribe from the source definitions. I find it impossible to believe that no dictionary states a knife can be used to stab, even if they're mostly used for slicing/cutting.
      Also, the author seems to assume that the prison term 'shank' is derived from a golf club's shank (shaft), purely from the tapering shape fitting their preconceived description of a prison shank (that's having a theory and then looking for an explanation to fit). Many shanks (shafts) do not taper - although they are often rod-like.
      What's a dagger, then?

  6. Excellent, exhaustive analysis.

    Lots of shivving and shanking going on this election year, I must say.