Thieves' cant  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Thieves' cant or Rogues' cant was a secret language (a cant or cryptolect) which was formerly used by thieves, beggars and hustlers of various kinds in Great Britain and to a lesser extent in other English-speaking countries. The classic, colourful argot is now mostly obsolete, and is largely relegated to the realm of literature and fantasy role-playing, although individual terms continue to be used in the criminal subcultures of both Britain and the U.S.. Its South German and Swiss equivalent is the Rotwelsch.



It was claimed by Samuel Rid that thieves' cant was devised around 1530 “to the end that their cozenings, knaveries and villainies might not so easily be perceived and known”, by Cock Lorel and the King of the Gypsies at The Devils Arse, a cave in Derbyshire. It does seem to have originated in this period but the story is almost certainly a myth.

Cant was a common feature of rogue literature of the Elizabethan period in England, in both pamphlets and Elizabethan theatre. Thomas Harman, who claimed to be a Justice of the Peace, included examples in his Caveat for Common Cursitors (1566). He claimed that he collected his information from vagabonds he interrogated at his home in Essex. He also called it “pedlars’ French” or “pelting speech”, and said he was told that it had been invented as a secret language some 30 years earlier. The earliest records of canting words are included in The Highway to the Spitalfields by Robert Copland c.1536. Copland and Harman were used as sources by later writers. A spate of rogue literature started in 1591 with Robert Greene's series of five pamphlets on cozenage and coney-catching. These were continued by other writers, including Thomas Middleton, in The Black Book and Thomas Dekker, in The Bellman of London (1608), Lantern and Candlelight (1608) and O per se O (1612). Cant was included together with descriptions of the social structure of beggars, the techniques of thieves including coney-catching, gull-groping and gaming tricks, and the descriptions of low life of the kind which have always been popular in literature. Many of these pamphlets borrowed from earlier works, sometimes wholesale.

Harman included a canting dictionary which was copied by Thomas Dekker and other writers. That such words were known to a wide audience is evidenced by the use of cant words in Jacobean theatre. Middleton and Dekker included it in The Roaring Girl, or Moll Cut-Purse (1611). It was used extensively in The Beggars' Bush, a play by Francis Beaumont, John Fletcher and Philip Massinger, first performed in 1622, but possibly written c.1614. The play remained popular for two centuries, and the canting section was extracted as The Beggars Commonwealth by Francis Kirkman as one of the drolls he published for performance at markets, fairs and camps.

The influence of this work can be seen from the independent life taken on by the "Beggar King Clause", who appears as a real character in later literature. The ceremony for anointing the new king was taken from Thomas Harman and described as being used by Gypsies in the nineteenth century. Bampfylde Moore Carew, who published his picaresque Life in 1745, claimed to have been chosen to succeed "Clause Patch" as King of the Beggars, and many editions of his work included a canting dictionary. Such dictionaries, often based on Harman’s, remained popular, including The Canting Academy, or Devils Cabinet opened, by Richard Head (1673), and BE's Dictionary of the Canting Crew (1699).

Some words from thieves’ cant continued to be used into the twentieth century combined with slang words from eighteenth century London.

In June 2009 it was reported that inmates in one English prison were using "Elizabethan Cant" as a means of communication that guards would not understand, although the words used are not part of the canon of recognised cant.

Sources for Cant

It was commonly believed that cant developed from Romany. Etymological research now suggests a substantial correlation between Romany words and cant, and equivalents, in many European languages. However, in England & Wales this does not apply. The Egyptians, as they were known, were a separate group from the standard vagabonds, and cant was fully developed within 50 years of their first arrival in England. Comparison of Gypsy words in the Winchester Confessions taken in 1616 with modern Welsh Romany show high commonality. This record also distinguished between Gypsy and Cant words and again the attributions of the words to the different categories is consistent with later records.

There is doubt as to the extent to which the words in canting literature were taken from street usage, or were adopted by those wishing to show that they were part of a real or imagined criminal underworld. The transmission has almost certainly been in both directions. The Winchester Confessions indicate that Gypsies engaged in criminal activities, or those associated with them and with a good knowledge of their language, were using cant, but as a separate vocabulary - Angloromani was used for day to day matters, while Cant was used for criminal activities. A thief in 1839 claimed that the cant he had seen in print was nothing like the cant then used by gypsies, thieves and beggars. He also said that each of these used distinct vocabularies, which overlapped; the gypsies having a cant word for everything, and the beggars using a lower style than the thieves.


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  • Blaskasily wontramoe - A hard night's work
  • Gurvectens masoblius - Grave robbing assignment
  • Shurdega ot pier - Atonement for sins of the father; payback
  • Jurnikalast - Plot (noun)

See also

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