The Sweeney slang – What’s a Peter?

We get a lot of questions about TV series which feature Cockney slang. The top three are:

Only Fools and Horses
The Sweeney

The Sweeney slangBecause these series are repeated continuously all round the world, they pick up fans in the strangest places who are often baffled by the Cockney lingo. For example we have a fan of Only Fools and Horses who writes to us from Alabama quite regularly to decipher DelBoy’s sayings.

Anyway, Jack wrote to us recently with this question about the phrase “Peter”, meaning a safe or vault, from The Sweeney:

“I bought the box set of ‘The Sweeney’ recently and am slowly working my way through them all. Twice in the episode ‘Stay Lucky Eh?’ they used the slang ‘peter’ to refer to a safe (or possibly, ‘vault’) that was broken into. This was a bit confusing as one of the main characters was also called Peter! Anyway, I cannot find a translation for this anywhere online and feel sure that it must be rhyming slang as the show used it extensively. Can you help? Thanks!”

With a bit of help from Eric and Google, we came up with this:

There’s no doubt that Peter does mean a safe. It used to be such a common phrase that is was not considered slang – “peter” was simply the word for a
safe or trunk.

The origins are unclear. There is speculation that it could come from the Biblical Peter – either because safes were frequently netted by thieves (placed in a net a hauled away) or because Peter is the Greek word for rock, and the safes were supposed to be rock solid.

St Peter was called “the rock” by Jesus, and the rock upon which Christianity was built. What’s more, St Peter is supposed to hold the keys to kingdom of heaven – St Peter the keeper adds credibility to the theory that Peter for “safe” is derived from St Peter.

It dates from the 1600’s but was in common usage during the 20th Century.

If you have any more info let us know.

5 responses to “The Sweeney slang – What’s a Peter?”

  1. dave fountain says:

    dont belive You lot dont get it st peter THE KEEPER IE SAFE all official sites
    ?????????????????? from a true cockney

  2. Steve Lewer says:

    Peter = Peter Pan : Can (prison)

    It’s also Peter Purvis : Nervous

  3. roddy gould says:

    I thought it was St. Peter, the keeper of the Catholic faith – safe.

  4. Elmer Fudd says:

    In the episode of The Sweeney with Diana Dors as Mrs Rix, "peter" is used to mean a prison cell.

  5. Elmer Fudd says:

    Look out for when the "slag" talks to Reagan about her husband who is in prison, she says, "He shared a peter with him".

    He shared a cell with him.