March 14, 2008

Twisting in the rings

Cathy Prasad asks:

What exactly is a prostitution "ring"? Is it like a lion pride or a bird flock? Or does it have something to do with a circle?

Inquiring minds want to know .. ;)

It wouldn't have occurred to me that this usage would seem odd, but on reflection, the modern metaphor would be based on the spatial arrangement of a network rather than a circle.

In the AHD, sense 9 for ring is

An exclusive group of people acting privately or illegally to advance their own interests: a drug ring.

However, just like Cathy, the OED misses this sense. The entry for ring has

10.a. A circle or circular group of persons.

where ring is interpreted literally as a spatial arrangement; and a group of more specific senses, namely

11. a. A combination of interested persons to monopolize and control a particular trade or market for their private advantage. spec. a combination of dealers, contractors, or the like, who cooperate in buying or selling at agreed price-levels, in order to increase their profits. Also attrib. orig. chiefly U.S.

b. An organization which endeavours to control politics or local affairs in its own interest.

c. An organization or network of people engaged in espionage.

The OED does have some relevant example sentences, for example under prostitution:

1975 Times 21 June 2/3 Runaway boys..were procured for a male prostitution ring by offers of food and shelter.

and under under mule:

1989 T. CLANCY Clear & Present Danger xiv. 300 Met a new girl, but she was kidnapped and murdered by a local drug ring—seems she was a mule for them before they met.

But the relevant sense is missed in the ring entry itself. Nevertheless, at least in the U.S., the "crime ring" usage is more than a century old:

"Folsom Drug Ring", AP [in Los Angeles Times], May 23, 1904:

"The summary dismissal and quiet departure of four guards from Folsom prison recently marked the abrupt ending of a drug ring which had been engaged in an extensive business of smuggling opium and morphine through the dead lines to the convicts," says the Chronicle.

"Officials Exonerated", Los Angeles Times, Apr 28, 1931:

The leader of the local radical political element was asserted to have charged in election speeches that a bootleg and prostitution ring was operating about the City Hall and that he had information which would force Orbison and Melcher to resign as soon as it was made public.

[Laura Britt Greig writes:

I think rings, as opposed to networks, imply a closed system. Outsiders are unwelcome.


Posted by Mark Liberman at March 14, 2008 01:31 PM