the history of cant - The Slang Dictionary




Cant and Slang are universal and world-wide. By their means is often said in a sentence what would otherwise take an hour to express. Nearly every nation on the face of the globe, polite and barbarous, has its divisions and subdivisions of various ranks of society. These are necessarily of many kinds, stationary and wandering, civilized and uncivilized, respectable and disreputable,—those who have fixed abodes and avail themselves of the refinements of civilization, and those who go from place to place picking up a precarious livelihood by petty sales, begging, or theft. This peculiarity is to be observed amongst the heathen tribes of the southern hemisphere, as well as in the oldest and most refined countries of Europe. In South Africa, the naked and miserable Hottentots are pestered by the still more abject Sonquas; and it may be some satisfaction for us to know that our old enemies at the Cape, the Kaffirs, are troubled with a tribe of rascals called Fingoes,—the former term, we are informed by travellers, signifying beggars, and the latter wanderers and outcasts. In South America, and among the islands of the Pacific, matters are pretty much the same. Sleek rascals, without much inclination towards honesty, fatten, or rather fasten, like the insects in the famous epigram, upon other rascals, who would be equally sleek and fat but for their vagabond dependents. Luckily for respectable persons, however, vagabonds, both at home[2] and abroad, generally show certain outward peculiarities which distinguish them from the great mass of law-abiding people on whom they subsist. Observation shows that the wandering races are remarkable for an abnormal development of the bones of the face, as the jaws, cheek-bones, &c., for high-crowned, stubborn-shaped heads, quick, restless eyes,[1] and hands nervously itching to be doing; for their love of gambling; for sensuality of all kinds; and for their use of a Cant language with which to conceal their designs and plunderings.

The secret jargon, or rude speech, of the vagabonds who hang upon the Hottentots is termed Cuze-cat. In Finland, the fellows who steal seal-skins, pick the pockets of bear-skin overcoats, and talk cant, are termed Lappes. In France, the secret language of highwaymen, housebreakers, and pickpockets, is named Argot. The brigands and more romantic rascals of Spain term their private tongue Germania,[2] or Robbers’ Language. Rothwälsch,[3] or foreign-beggar-talk, is synonymous with cant and thieves’ talk in Germany. The vulgar dialect of Malta, and the Scala towns of the Levant—imported into this country and incorporated with English cant—is known as the Lingua Franca, or bastard Italian. And the crowds of lazy beggars that infest the streets of Naples and Rome, as well as the brigands of Pompeii, use a secret language termed Gergo. In England, as we all know, it is called Cant—often improperly Slang.

Most nations, then, possess each a tongue, or series of tongues maybe, each based on the national language, by which not only thieves, beggars, and other outcasts communicate, but which is used more or less by all classes. There is hardly any community in this country, hardly any profession, but has its slang,[3] and proficiency in this is the greatest desideratum of an aspirant to the pleasures of Society, or the honours of literature and art. The formation of these secret tongues varies, of course, with the circumstances surrounding the speakers. A writer in Notes and Queries has well remarked that “the investigation of the origin and principles of cant and slang language opens a curious field of inquiry, replete with considerable interest to the philologist and the philosopher. It affords a remarkable instance of lingual contrivance, which, without the introduction of much arbitrary matter, has developed a system of communicating ideas, having all the advantages of a foreign language.”

“The terms Cant and Canting were probably derived from chaunt and chaunting,—the whining tone, or modulation of voice adopted by beggars, with intent to coax, wheedle, or cajole by pretensions of wretchedness.”[4] For the origin of the other application of the word Cant, pulpit hypocrisy, we are indebted to the Spectator—“Cant is by some people derived from one Andrew Cant, who, they say, was a Presbyterian minister in some illiterate part of Scotland, who, by exercise and use, had obtained the faculty, alias gift, of talking in the pulpit in such a dialect that ’tis said he was understood by none but his own congregation,—and not by all of them. Since Master Cant’s time it has been understood in a larger sense, and signifies all exclamations, whinings, unusual tones, and, in fine, all praying and preaching like the unlearned of the Presbyterians.” This anecdote is curious, though it is but fair to assume that the preacher’s name was taken from his practice, rather than that the practice was called after the preacher. As far as we are concerned, however, in the present inquiry, Cant was derived from chaunt, a beggar’s whine; “chaunting” being the recognised term amongst beggars to this day for begging orations and street whinings; and “chaunter,” a street talker and tramp, is still the term used by strollers and patterers. This[4] race is, however, nearly obsolete. The use of the word Cant, amongst beggars, must certainly have commenced at a very early date, for we find “To cante, to speake,” in Harman’s list of Rogues’ Words in the year 1566; and Harrison about the same time,[5] in speaking of beggars and Gipsies, says, “they have devised a language among themselves which they name Canting, but others Pedlars’ Frenche.”

Now, the word Cant in its old sense, and Slang[6] in its modern application, although used by good writers and persons of education as synonyms, are in reality quite distinct and separate terms. Cant, apart from religious hypocrisy, refers to the old secret language of Gipsies, thieves, tramps, and beggars. Slang represents that evanescent language, ever changing with fashion and taste, which has principally come into vogue during the last seventy or eighty years, spoken by persons in every grade of life, rich and poor, honest and dishonest.[7] Cant is old; Slang is always modern and ever changing. To illustrate the difference: a thief in Cant language would term a horse a “prancer” or a “prad;” while in Slang, a man of fashion would speak of it as a “bit of blood,” a “spanker,” or a “neat tit.” A handkerchief, too, would be a “billy,” a “fogle,” or a “Kent rag,” in the secret language of low characters; whilst amongst the modern folk who affect Slang, it would be called a “stook,” a “wipe,” a “fogle,” or a “clout.” Cant was formed for purposes of secrecy. Slang, though it has a tendency the same way, is still often indulged in from a mild desire to appear familiar with life, gaiety, town-humour, and the transient nicknames[5] and street jokes of the day. Both Cant and Slang, we have before said, are often huddled together as synonyms; but they are most certainly distinct, and as such should be used.

To the Gipsies, beggars and thieves are in great measure indebted for their Cant language. It is supposed that the Gipsies originally landed in this country early in the reign of Henry VIII. They were at first treated as conjurors and magicians,—indeed, they were hailed by the populace with as much applause as a company of English performers usually receives on arriving in a distant colony. They came here with all their old Eastern arts of palmistry and second-sight, with their factitious power of doubling money by incantation and burial,—shreds of pagan idolatry; and they brought with them, also, the dishonesty of the lower-caste Orientals, and the nomadic tastes they had acquired through centuries of wandering over nearly the whole of the then known globe. They possessed also a language quite distinct from anything that had been heard in England up till their advent; they claimed the title of Egyptians, and as such, when their thievish propensities became a public nuisance, were cautioned and proscribed in a royal proclamation by Henry VIII.[8] The Gipsies were not long in the country before they found native imitators; and indeed the imitation is much more frequently found nowadays, in the ranks of the so-called Gipsies, than is the genuine article. Vagabondism is peculiarly catching, and the idle, the vagrant, and the criminal soon caught the idea from the Gipsies, and learned from them to tramp, sleep under hedges and trees, tell fortunes, and find lost property for a consideration—frequently, as the saying runs, having found it themselves before it was lost. They also learned the value and application of a secret tongue; indeed, with the Gipsies came in all the accompaniments of maunding and imposture, except thieving and begging,[6] which were well known in this country, and perhaps in every other, long before visitors had an opportunity of teaching them.

Harman, in 1566, wrote a singular, not to say droll, book, entitled, A Caveat for commen Cvrsetors, vulgarly called Vagabones, newly augmented and inlarged, wherein the history and various descriptions of rogues and vagabonds are given, together with their canting tongue. This book, the earliest of the kind, gives the singular fact that within a dozen years after the landing of the Gipsies, companies of English vagrants were formed, places of meeting appointed, districts for plunder and begging operations marked out, and rules agreed to for their common management. In some cases Gipsies joined the English gangs; in others, English vagrants joined the Gipsies. The fellowship was found convenient and profitable, as both parties were aliens to the laws and customs of the country, living in a great measure in the open air, apart from the lawful public, and often meeting each other on the same by-path, or in the same retired valley; but seldom intermarrying or entirely adopting each other’s habits. The common people, too, soon began to consider them as of one family,—all rogues, and from Egypt. This superstition must have been very firmly imbedded, for it is still current. The secret language spoken by the Gipsies, principally Hindoo, and extremely barbarous to English ears, was found incomprehensible and very difficult to learn. The Gipsies naturally found a similar difficulty with the English language. A rude, rough, and singular, but under the circumstances not unnatural, compromise was made, and a mixture of Gipsy, old English, newly-coined words, and cribbings from any foreign, and therefore secret, language, mixed and jumbled together, formed what has ever since been known as the Canting Language, or Pedlar’s French; or, during the past century, St. Giles’s Greek.

Such was the origin of Cant; and in illustration of its blending with the Gipsy or Cingari tongue, we are enabled to[7] give the accompanying list of Gipsy, and often Hindoo, words, with, in many instances, their English representatives:—

Gipsy. English.

Bamboozle, to perplex or mislead by hiding. Modern Gipsy. Bamboozle, to delude, cheat, or make a fool of any one.

Bosh, rubbish, nonsense, offal. Gipsy and Persian. Bosh, stupidity, foolishness.

Cheese, thing or article, “That’s the cheese,” or thing. Gipsy and Hindoo. Cheese, or cheesy, a first-rate or very good article.

Chive, the tongue. Gipsy. Chive, or chivey, a shout. To chivey, to hunt down with shouts.

Cuta, a gold coin. Danubian Gipsy. Couter, a sovereign, twenty shillings.

Dade, or Dadi, a father. Gipsy. Daddy, nursery term for father.(*)

Distarabin, a prison. Gipsy. Sturabin, a prison.

Gad, or Gadsi, a wife. Gipsy. Gad, a female scold; a woman who tramps over the country with a beggar or hawker.

Gibberish, the language of Gipsies, synonymous with Slang. Gipsy. Gibberish, rapid and unmeaning speech.

Ischur, Schur, or Chur, a thief. Gipsy and Hindoo. Cur, a mean or dishonest man.(*)

Lab, a word. Gipsy. Lobs, words.

Lowe, or Lowr, money. Gipsy and Wallachian. Lowre, money. Ancient Cant.

Mami, a grandmother. Gipsy. Mammy, or Mamma, a mother, formerly sometimes used for grandmother.(*)

Mang, or Maung, to beg. Gipsy and Hindoo. Maund, to beg.

Mort, a free woman,—one for common use amongst the male Gipsies, so appointed by Gipsy custom. Gipsy. Mot, a prostitute.

[8]Mu, the mouth. Gipsy and Hindoo. Moo, or Mun, the mouth.

Mull, to spoil or destroy. Gipsy. Mull, to spoil, or bungle.(*)

Pal, a brother. Gipsy. Pal, a partner, or relation.

Pané, water. Gipsy. Hindoo, pawnee. Parney, rain.

Rig, a performance. Gipsy. Rig, a frolic, or “spree.”

Romany, speech or language. Spanish Gipsy. Romany, the Gipsy language.

Rome, or Romm, a man. Gipsy and Coptic. Rum, a good man, or thing. In the Robbers’ language of Spain (partly Gipsy), rum signifies a harlot.

Romee, a woman. Gipsy. Rumy, a good woman or girl.

Slang, the language spoken by Gipsies. Gipsy. Slang, low, vulgar, unauthorized language.

Tawno, little. Gipsy. Tanny, Teeny, little.

Tschib, or Jibb, the tongue. Gipsy and Hindoo. Jibb, the tongue; Jabber,[9] quick-tongued, or fast talk.

[In those instances indicated by a (*), it is doubtful whether we are indebted to the Gipsies for the terms. Dad, in Welsh, also signifies a father. Cur is stated to be a mere term of reproach, like Dog, which in all European languages has been applied in an abusive sense. Objections may also be raised against Gad, Maund, and many other of these parallels. We have, however, no wish to present them as infallible; our idea is merely to call the reader’s attention to the undoubted similarity between both the sound and the sense in most examples.]

Here, then, we have the remarkable fact of at least a few words of pure Gipsy origin going the round of Europe, passing into this country before the Reformation, and coming down to us through numerous generations purely by the mouths of the people. They have seldom been written or used in books, and it is simply as vulgarisms that they have reached us. Only a few are now Cant, and some are household words. The word jockey, as applied to a dealer or rider of horses, came from the Gipsy, and means in that language a whip. The word, used as a verb, is an instance of modern slang grown out of the ancient. Our standard dictionaries give, of course, none but conjectural etymologies. Another word, bamboozle, has been a sore difficulty with lexicographers. It is not in the old dictionaries, although it is extensively used in familiar or popular language for the last two centuries; and is, in fact, the very kind of word that such writers as Swift, Butler, L’Estrange, and Arbuthnot would pick out at once as a telling and most serviceable term. It is, as we have seen, from the Gipsy; and here we must state that it was Boucher who first drew attention[9] to the fact, although in his remarks on the dusky tongue he has made an evident mistake by concluding it to be identical with its offspring, Cant. Other parallel instances, with but slight variations from the old Gipsy meanings, might be mentioned; but sufficient examples have been adduced to show that Marsden, a great Oriental scholar in the last century, when he declared before the Society of Antiquaries that the Cant of English thieves and beggars had nothing to do with the language spoken by the despised Gipsies, was in error. Had the Gipsy tongue been analysed and committed to writing three centuries ago, there is every probability that many scores of words now in common use could be at once traced to its source, having been adopted as our language has developed towards its present shape through many varied paths. Instances continually occur nowadays of street vulgarisms ascending to the drawing-rooms of respectable society. Who, then, can doubt that the Gipsy-vagabond alliance of three centuries ago has contributed its quota of common words to popular speech?

Thomas Moore, in a humorous little book, Tom Crib’s Memorial to Congress, 1819, says, “The Gipsy language, with the exception of such terms as relate to their own peculiar customs, differs but little from the regular Flash or Cant language.” But this was magnifying the importance of the alliance. Moore, we should think, knew nothing of the Gipsy tongue other than the few Cant words put into the mouths of the beggars in Beaumont and Fletcher’s Comedy of the Beggar’s Bush, and Ben Jonson’s Masque of the Gipsies Metamorphosed,—hence his confounding Cant with Gipsy speech, and appealing to the Glossary of Cant for so-called “Gipsy” words at the end of the Life of Bamfylde Moore Carew, to bear him out in his assertion. Still his remark bears much truth, and proof of this would have been found long ago if any scholar had taken the trouble to examine the “barbarous jargon of Cant,” and to have compared it with Gipsy speech. George Borrow, in his[10] Account of the Gipsies in Spain, thus eloquently concludes his second volume; speaking of the connexion of the Gipsies with Europeans, he says:—“Yet from this temporary association were produced two results; European fraud became sharpened by coming into contact with Asiatic craft; whilst European tongues, by imperceptible degrees, became recruited with various words (some of them wonderfully expressive), many of which have long been stumbling-blocks to the philologist, who, whilst stigmatizing them as words of mere vulgar invention, or of unknown origin, has been far from dreaming that a little more research or reflection would have proved their affinity to the Sclavonic, Persian, or Romaic, or perhaps to the mysterious object of his veneration, the Sanscrit, the sacred tongue of the palm-covered regions of Ind; words originally introduced into Europe by objects too miserable to occupy for a moment his lettered attention—the despised denizens of the tents of Roma.” These words might with very little alteration be ascribed to the subject of which this volume is supposed—indeed hoped—to be a handbook.

But the Gipsies, their speech, their character—bad enough, as all the world testifies, but yet not devoid of redeeming qualities—their history, and their religious belief, have been totally disregarded, and their poor persons buffeted and jostled about until it is a wonder that any trace of origin or national speech remains. On the Continent they received better attention at the hands of learned men. Their language was taken down in writing and examined, their history was traced, and their extraordinary customs and practice of living in the open air, and eating raw, and often putrid meat, were explained. They ate reptiles and told fortunes because they had learnt to do so through their forefathers centuries back in Hindostan; and they devoured carrion because the Hindoo proverb—“That which God kills is better than that killed by man”[10]—was[11] still in their remembrance. This is the sort of proverb, we should imagine, that would hardly commend itself to any one who had not an unnatural and ghoule-like tendency anxious for full development. Grellman, a learned German, was their principal historian, and to him, and those who have followed him, we are almost entirely indebted for the little we know of their language. The first European settlement of the Gipsies was in the provinces adjoining the Danube, Moldau and Theiss, where M. Cogalniceano, in his Essai sur les Cigains de la Moldo-Valachie, estimates them at 200,000. Not a few of our ancient and modern Cant and Slang terms are Wallachian and Greek words, picked up by these wanderers from the East, and added to their common stock.

Gipsy, then, started, and was partially merged into Cant; and the old story told by Harrison and others, that the first inventor of canting was hanged for his pains, would seem to be a humorous invention, for jargon as it is, it was doubtless of gradual formation, like all other languages or systems of speech. Most of the modern Gipsies know the old Cant words as well as their own tongue—or rather what remains of it. As Borrow says, “The dialect of the English Gipsies is mixed with English words.”[11] Those of the tribe who frequent fairs, and mix with English tramps, readily learn the new words, as they are adopted by what Harman calls “the fraternity of vagabonds.” Indeed, the old Cant is a common language to the vagrants of many descriptions and every possible origin who are scattered over the British Isles.

English Cant has its mutabilities like every other system of speech, and is considerably altered since the first dictionary was compiled by Harman in 1566. A great many words are unknown in the present tramps’ and thieves’ vernacular. Some of them, however, still bear their old definitions, while others have adopted fresh meanings. “Abraham-man” is yet seen in[12] our modern “sham Abraham,” or “play the old soldier”—i.e., to feign sickness or distress. “Autum” is still a church or chapel amongst Gipsies; and “beck,” a constable, is our modern Cant and Slang “beak,” once a policeman, but now a magistrate. “Bene,” or “bone,” stands for good in Seven Dials and the back streets of Westminster; and “bowse” is our modern “booze,” to drink or fuddle. A “bowsing ken” was the old Cant term for a public-house; and “boozing ken,” in modern Cant, has precisely the same meaning. There is little doubt, though, that the pronunciations were always as they are now, so far at least as these two instances are concerned. “Cassan” is both old and modern Cant for cheese; the same may be said of “chattes,” or “chatts,” the gallows. “Cofe,” or “cove,” is still a vulgar synonym for a man. “Dudes” was Cant for clothes; we now say “duds.” “Flag” is still a fourpenny-piece; and “fylche” means to rob. “Ken” is a house, and “lick” means to thrash; “prancer” is yet known amongst rogues as a horse; and to “prig,” amongst high and low, is to steal. Three centuries ago, if one beggar said anything disagreeable to another, the person annoyed would say, “Stow you,” or hold your peace; low people now say, “Stow it,” equivalent to “Be quiet.” There is, so far as the Slang goes, no actual difference in the use of these phrases, the variation being in the pronouns—in fact, in the direction. “Trine” is still to hang; “wyn” yet stands for a penny. And many other words, as will be seen in the Dictionary, still retain their ancient meaning.

As specimens of those words which have altered their original Cant signification, may be instanced “chete,” now written cheat. “Chete” was in ancient Cant what chop is in the Canton-Chinese—an almost inseparable adjunct. Everything was termed a “chete,” and qualified by a substantive-adjective, which showed what kind of a “chete” was meant; for instance, “crashing-chetes” were teeth; a “moffling-chete,” was a napkin; a “topping-chete,” was the gallows, and a “grunting-chete,” was a pig. Cheat nowadays means to cozen or defraud, and lexicographers[13] have tortured etymology for an original—but without success. Escheats and escheatours have been named, but with great doubts; indeed, Stevens, the learned commentator on Shakspeare, acknowledged that he “did not recollect to have met with the word cheat in our ancient writers.”[12] Cheat, to defraud, then, is no other than an old Cant term somewhat altered in its meaning,[13] and as such it should be described in the next etymological dictionary. Another instance of a change in the meaning of the old Cant, but the retention of the word, is seen in “cly,” formerly to take or steal, now a pocket; and with the remembrance of a certain class of low characters, a curious connexion between the two meanings is discovered. “Make” was a halfpenny: we now say “mag,”—“make” being modern Cant for getting money by any possible means, their apophthegm being—“Get money the best way you can, but make it somehow.” “Milling” stood for stealing; it ultimately became a pugilistic term, and then faded into nothingness, “the cove wot loves a mill,” being a thing of the past. “Nab” was a head,—low people now say “nob,” the former meaning, in modern Cant, to steal or seize. “Pek” was meat,—we still say “peckish,” when hungry. “Peckish” is though more likely to be derived from the action of birds when eating, as all slang has its origin in metaphor. “Prygges, dronken Tinkers or beastly people,” as old Harman wrote, would scarcely be understood now; a “prig,” in the 19th century, is a pickpocket or thief. He is also a mean, contemptible little “cuss,” who is not, as a rule, found in low life, but who could be very well spared from that of the middle and upper classes. “Quier,” or “queer,” like cheat, was a very common prefix, and meant bad or wicked,—it now means odd, curious, or strange; but to the ancient Cant we are possibly indebted[14] for the word, which etymologists should remember.[14] “Rome,” or “rum,” formerly meant good, or of the first quality, and was extensively used like cheat and queer,—indeed as an adjective it was the opposite of the latter. “Rum” now means curious, and is synonymous with queer; thus,—“rummy old bloke,” or a “queer old man.” Here again we see the origin of an every-day word, scouted by lexicographers and snubbed by respectable persons, but still a word of frequent and popular use. “Yannam” meant bread; “pannum” is the word now. Other instances could be pointed out, but they will be observed in the Dictionary.

Several words are entirely obsolete. “Alybbeg” no longer means a bed, nor “askew” a cup. “Booget,”[15] nowadays, would not be understood for a basket; neither would “gan” pass current for mouth. “Fullams” was the old Cant term for false or loaded dice, and although used by Shakspeare in this sense, is now unknown and obsolete. Indeed, as Moore somewhere remarks, the present Greeks of St. Giles’s themselves would be thoroughly puzzled by many of the ancient canting songs,—taking, for example, the first verse of an old favourite—

“Bing out, bien Morts, and toure and toure,

Bing out, bien Morts, and toure;

For all your duds are bing’d awast;

The bien cove hath the loure.”[16]

But perhaps we cannot do better than present to the reader[15] at once an entire copy of the first Canting Dictionary ever compiled. As before mentioned, it was the work of one Thomas Harman, who lived in the days of Queen Elizabeth. Some writers have remarked that Decker[17] was the first to compile a dictionary of the vagabonds’ tongue; whilst Borrow[18] and Moore stated that Richard Head performed that service in his Life of an English Rogue, published in the year 1680. All these statements are equally incorrect, for the first attempt was made more than a century before the latter work was issued. The quaint spelling and old-fashioned phraseology are preserved, and the initiated will quickly recognise many vulgar street words as old acquaintances dressed in antique garb.[19]

Abraham-men be those that fayn themselves to have beene mad, and have bene kept either in Bethelem, or in some other pryson a good time.

Alybbeg, a bedde.

Askew, a cuppe.

Autem, a churche.

Autem mortes, married women as chaste as a cowe.

Baudye baskets bee women who goe with baskets and capcases on their armes, wherein they have laces, pinnes, nedles, whyte inkel, and round sylke gyrdels of all colours.

Beck [Beak, a magistrate], a constable.

Belly-chete, apron.

Bene, good. Benar, better.

Benship, very good.

Bleting chete, a calfe or sheepe.

Booget, a travelling tinker’s baskete.

Borde, a shilling.

Boung, a purse. [Friesic, pong; Wallachian, punga.] The oldest form of this word is in Ulphilas, puggs; it exists also in the Greek, πουγγὴ.

Bowse, drink.


Bowsing ken, an alehouse.

Bufe [Buffer, a man], a dogge.

Bynge a waste [Avast, get out of the way] go you hence.

Cackling chete, a coke [cock], or capon.

Cassan [Cassam], cheese.

Casters [Castor, a hat], a cloake.

Cateth, “the vpright Cofe cateth to the Roge” [probably a shortening or misprint of Canteth].

Chattes, the gallowes.

Chete [see what has been previously said about this word.]

Cly [a pocket], to take, receive, or have.

Cofe [cove], a person.

Commission [mish], a shirt.

Counterfet cranke, these that do counterfet the Cranke be yong knaves and yonge harlots, that deeply dissemble the falling sickness.

Cranke [cranky, foolish], falling evil [or wasting sickness].

Crashing chetes, teeth.

Cuffen, a manne. [A cuif in Northumberland and Scotland signifies a lout or awkward fellow.]

Darkemans, the night.

Dell, a yonge wench.

Dewse a vyle, the countrey.

Dock, to deflower.

Doxes, harlots.

Drawers, hosen.

Dudes [or duds], clothes.

Fambles, handes.

Fambling chete, a ring on one’s hand.

Flagg, a groat.

Frater, a beggar wyth a false paper.

Freshe water mariners, these kind of caterpillers counterfet great losses on the sea:—their shippes were drowned in the playne of Salisbury.

Fylche, to robbe: Fylch-man, a robber.

Gage, a quart pot.

Gan, a mouth.

Gentry cofe, a noble or gentle man.

Gentry cofes ken, a noble or gentle man’s house.

Gentry mort, a noble or gentle woman.

Gerry, excrement.

Glasyers, eyes.

Glymmar, fyer.

Grannam, corne.

Grunting chete, a pygge.


Gyb, a writing.

Gyger [jigger], a dore.

Hearing chetes, eares.

Jarke, a seale.

Jarkeman, one who makes writings and sets seales for [counterfeit] licences and passports.

Ken, a house.

Kynchen co [or cove], a young boye trained up like a “Kynching Morte.” [From the German diminutive, Kindschen.]

Kynching morte, is a little gyrle, carried at their mother’s backe in a slate, or sheete, who brings them up sauagely.

Lag, water.

Lag of dudes, a bucke [or basket] of clothes.

Lage, to washe.

Lap, butter mylke, or whey.

Lightmans, the day.

Lowing chete, a cowe.

Lowre, money. [From the Wallachian Gipsy word lowe, coined money. See M. Cogalniceano’s Essai sur les Cigains de la Moldo-Valachie.]

Lubbares,—“sturdy Lubbares,” country bumpkins, or men of a low degree.

Lyb-beg, a bed.

Lycke [lick], to beate.

Lyp, to lie down.

Lypken, a house to lye in.

Make [mag], a halfpenny.

Margeri prater, a hen.

Milling, to steale [by sending a child in at a window].

Moffling chete, a napkin.

Mortes [mots], harlots.

Myll, to robbe.

Mynt, gold.

Nab [nob], a heade.

Nabchet, a hat or cap.

Nase, dronken.

Nosegent, a nunne.

Pallyard, a borne beggar [who counterfeits sickness, or incurable sores. They are mostly Welshmen, Harman says.]

Param, mylke.

Patrico, a priest.

Patricos kinchen, a pygge. [A satirical hit at the church, patrico meaning a parson or priest, and kinchen his little boy or girl.]

Pek, meat.

Poppelars, porrage.


Prat, a buttocke. [This word has its equivalent in modern slang.]

Pratling chete, a toung.

Prauncer, a horse.

Prigger of prauncers be horse-stealers, for to prigge signifieth in their language to steale, and a prauncer is a horse, so being put together, the matter was playn. [Thus writes old Thomas Harman, who concludes his description of this order of “pryggers,” by very quietly saying, “I had the best gelding stolen out of my pasture, that I had amongst others, whyle this book was first a-printing.”]

Prygges, dronken tinkers, or beastly people.

Quacking chete, a drake or duck.

Quaromes, a body.

Quier [queer], badde. [See ante.]

Quier cuffin, the justice of peace.

Quyer crampringes, boltes or fetters.

Quyer kyn, a pryson house.

Red shanke, a drake or ducke.

Roger, a goose.

Rome, goode [now curious, noted, or remarkable in any way. Rum is the modern orthography].

Rome bouse [rum booze], wyne. [A name probably applied by canters coming on it for the first time, and tasting it suddenly.]

Rome mort, the Queene [Elizabeth].

Rome vyle [Rum-ville], London.

Ruff peck, baken [short bread, common in old times at farm-houses].

Ruffmans, the wood or bushes.

Salomon, an alter or masse.

Skypper, a barne.

Slate, a sheete or shetes.

Smelling chete, a nose.

Smelling chete, a garden or orchard.

Snowt fayre [said of a woman who has a pretty face or is comely].

Stall [to initiate a beggar or rogue into the rights and privileges of the canting order. Harman relates that when an upright man, or initiated first-class rogue, “mete any beggar, whether he be sturdy or impotent, he will demand of him whether ever he was ‘stalled to the roge,’ or no. If he say he was, he will know of whom, and his name yt stalled him. And if he be not learnedly able to shew him the whole circumstance thereof, he will spoyle him of his money, either of his best garment, if it be worth any money, and haue him to the bowsing-ken: which is, to some typling house next adjoyninge, and layth there to gage the best thing that he hath for twenty pence or two shillings: this man obeyeth for feare of beatinge. Then dooth this upright man call for a gage of bowse, which is a quarte potte of drink, and powres the same vpon his peld pate, adding these words,—I, G.P., do stalle thee, W.T., to the Roge, and that from henceforth it shall be lawfull for thee to cant, that is, to aske or begge for thi liuing in al places.”]


Stampers, shoes.

Stampes, legges.

Stauling ken, a house that will receyue stollen wares.

Stawlinge kens, tippling-houses.

Stow you [stow it], hold your peace.

Strike, to steale.

Strommell, strawe.

Swadder, or pedler [a man who hawks goods].

The high pad, the highway.

The ruffian cly thee, the devil take thee.

Togemans [tog], cloake.

Togman, a coate.

To bowse, to drinke.

To cant, to speake.

To cly the gerke, to be whipped.

To couch a hogshead, to lie down and slepe.

To cut bene whyddes, to speake or give good words.

To cut benle, to speak gentle.

To cutte, to say.

To cutte quyer whyddes, to giue euil words or euil language.

To dup ye gyger [jigger], to open the dore.

To fylche, to robbe.

To heue a bough, to robbe or rifle a boweth [booth].

To maunde, to aske or require.

To mill a ken, to robbe a house.

Tonygle [coition].

To nyp a boung, [nip, to steal], to cut a purse.

To skower the crampringes, to weare boltes or fetters.

To stall, to make or ordain.

To the ruffian, to the Devil.

To towre, to see.

Tryning, hanging.

Tyb of the butery, a goose.

Walking morte, womene [who pass for widows].

Wapping [coition].

Whyddes, wordes.

Wyn, a penny. [A correspondent of Notes and Queries suggests the connexion of this word with the Welsh, gwyn, white—i.e., the white silver penny. See other examples under blunt, in the Dictionary; cf. also the Armorican, “gwennek,” a penny.]

Yannam, bread.

Turning attention more to the Cant of modern times, in connexion with the old, it will be found that words have been[20] drawn into the thieves’ vocabulary from every conceivable source. Hard or infrequent words, vulgarly termed “crack-jaw,” or “jaw-breakers,” were very often used and considered as Cant terms. And here it should be mentioned that at the present day the most inconsistent and far-fetched terms are often used for secret purposes, when they are known to be caviare to the million. It is strange that such words as incongruous, insipid, interloper, intriguing, indecorum, forestall, equip, hush, grapple, &c., &c., were current Cant words a century and a half ago, if we are to judge by the Dictionary of Canting Words at the end of Bacchus and Venus,[20] 1737. It is but fair, however, to assume that the compiler of the dictionary was but trading on the demand for Cant phrases, and was humbugging his readers. The terms are inserted not as jokes or squibs, but as selections from the veritable pocket dictionaries of the Jack Sheppards and Dick Turpins of the day. If they were safely used as unknown and cabalistic terms amongst the commonalty, the fact would form a very curious illustration of the ignorance of our poor ancestors; but it would be unfair and, indeed, idiotic to assume this without much stronger proof than the book in question gives of itself.

Amongst those Cant words which have either altered their meanings, or have become extinct, may be cited lady, formerly the Cant for “a very crooked, deformed, and ill-shapen woman;”[21] and Harman, “a pair of stocks, or a constable.” The former is a pleasant piece of sarcasm, whilst the latter indicates a singular method of revenge, or else of satire. Harman was the first author who specially wrote against English vagabonds, and for his trouble his name, we are told, became synonymous with a pair of stocks, or a policeman of the olden time.


Apart from the Gipsy element, we find that Cant abounds in terms from foreign languages, and that it exhibits signs of a growth similar to that of most recognised and completely-formed tongues,—the gathering of words from foreign sources. In the reign of Elizabeth and of King James I., several Dutch, Flemish, and Spanish words were introduced by soldiers who had served in the Low Countries and sailors who had returned from the Spanish Main, who, like “mine ancient Pistol,” were fond of garnishing their speech with outlandish phrases. Many of these were soon picked up and adopted by vagabonds and tramps in their Cant language. The Anglo-Norman and the Anglo-Saxon, the Scotch, the French, the Italian, and even the classic languages of ancient Italy and Greece, besides the various provincial dialects of England, have contributed to its list of words. Indeed, as has been remarked, English Cant seems to be formed on the same basis as the Argot of the French and the Roth-Sprach of the Germans—partly metaphorical, and partly by the introduction of such corrupted foreign terms as are likely to be unknown to the society amid which the Cant speakers exist. Argot is the London thieves’ word for their secret language; it is, of course, from the French, but that matters not, so long as it is incomprehensible to the police and the mob. “Booze,” or “bouse,” is supposed to come from the Dutch buysen, though the word has been in use in England for some hundreds of years. “Domine,” a parson, is from the Spanish. “Donna and feeles,” a woman and children, is from the Latin; and “don,” a clever fellow, has been filched from the Lingua Franca, or bastard Italian, although it sounds like an odd mixture of Spanish and French; whilst “duds,” the vulgar term for clothes, may have been pilfered either from the Gaelic or the Dutch. “Feele,” a daughter, from the French; and “frow,” a girl or wife, from the German—are common tramps’ terms. So are “gent,” silver, from the French argent; and “vial,” a country town, also from the French. “Horrid-horn,” a fool, is believed to be from the[22] Erse; and “gloak,” a man, from the Scotch. As stated before, the dictionary will supply numerous other instances.

The Celtic languages have contributed many Cant and vulgar words to our popular vocabulary. These have come to us through the Gaelic and Irish languages, so closely allied in their material as to be merely dialects of a primitive common tongue. This element may arise from the Celtic portion of our population, which, from its position as slaves or servants to its ancient conquerors, has contributed so largely to the lowest class of the community, therefore to our Slang, provincial, or colloquial words; or it may be an importation from Irish immigrants, who have contributed their fair proportion to our criminal stock.

There is one source, however, of secret street terms which in the first edition of this work was entirely overlooked,—indeed, it was unknown to the original compiler until pointed out by a correspondent,—the Lingua Franca, or bastard Italian, spoken at Genoa, Trieste, Malta, Constantinople, Smyrna, Alexandria, and all Mediterranean seaport towns. The ingredients of this imported Cant are, as its name denotes, many. Its foundation is Italian, with a mixture of modern Greek, German (from the Austrian ports), Spanish, Turkish, and French. It has been introduced to the notice of the London wandering tribes by the sailors, foreign and English, who trade to and from the Mediterranean seaports, but it must not be confounded with the mixture of Irish, English, and Italian spoken in neighbourhoods like Saffron Hill and Leather Lane, which are thronged with swarms of organ-grinders from all parts of Italy, and makers of images from Rome and Florence,—all of whom, in these dense thoroughfares, mingle with our lower orders. It would occupy too much space here to give a list of the words used in either of these Babel-like tongues, especially as the principal of them are noted in the dictionary.

“There are several Hebrew terms in our Cant language, obtained, it would appear, from the intercourse of the thieves[23] with the Jew fences (receivers of stolen goods); many of the Cant terms, again, are Sanscrit, got from the Gipsies; many Latin, got by the beggars from the Catholic prayers before the Reformation; and many again, Italian, got from the wandering musicians and others; indeed, the showmen have but lately introduced a number of Italian phrases into their Cant language.”[22] The Hindostanee also contributes several words, and these have been introduced by the Lascar sailors, who come over here in the East Indiamen, and often lodge during their stay in the low tramps’ houses at the East-end of London. Speaking of the learned tongues, it may be mentioned that, precarious and abandoned as the vagabonds’ existence is, many persons of classical or refined education have from time to time joined the nomadic ranks,—occasionally from inclination, as in the popular instance of Bamfylde Moore Carew, but generally through indiscretions, which involve pecuniary difficulty and loss of character.[23] This will in some measure account for numerous classical and learned words figuring as Cant terms in the vulgar dictionary.

In the early part of the last century, when highwaymen and footpads were plentiful, and when the dangerous classes were in larger proportion to the bulk of the population than they are now, a great many new words were added to the canting vocabulary, whilst several old terms fell into disuse. “Cant,” for instance, as applied to thieves’ talk, was supplanted by the word “flash.” In the North of England the Cant employed by tramps and thieves is known as “Gammy.” It is mainly[24] from the old Gipsy corrupted. In the large towns of Ireland and Scotland this secret language is also spoken, with of course additions peculiar to each locality. All those words derived from “gammy” are inserted in the dictionary as from the North country.

A singular feature, however, in vulgar language is the retention and the revival of sterling old English words, long since laid up in ancient manuscripts. Disraeli somewhere says, “The purest source of neology is in the revival of old words”—

“Words that wise Bacon or brave Rawleigh spake;”

and Dr. Latham remarks that “the thieves of London are the conservators of Anglo-Saxonisms.” A young gentleman from Belgravia, who had lost his watch or his pocket-handkerchief, would scarcely remark to his mamma that it had been “boned”—yet “bone,” in old times, meant, amongst high and low, to steal. And a young lady living in the precincts of dingy but aristocratic Mayfair, although enraptured with a Jenny Lind or a Ristori, would hardly think of turning back in the box to inform papa that she (Ristori or Lind) “made no ‘bones’ of it”—yet the phrase was most respectable and well-to-do before it met with a change of circumstances. Possibly fashion, in its journey from east to west, left certain phrases and metaphors behind, which being annexed by the newcomers, sank gradually in the social scale until they ultimately passed out of the written language altogether, and became “flash” or Slang. “A ‘crack’ article,” however first-rate, would have greatly displeased Dr. Johnson and Mr. Walker—yet both crack, in the sense of excellent, and crack up, to boast or praise, were not considered vulgarisms in the time of Henry VIII. The former term is used frequently nowadays, as a kind of polite and modified Slang—as a “crack” regiment, a “crack” shot, &c. “Dodge,” a cunning trick, is from the Anglo-Saxon; and ancient nobles used to “get each other’s ‘dander’ up” before appealing to their swords,—quite “flabbergasting” (also[25] a respectable old word) the half-score of lookers-on with the thumps and cuts of their heavy weapons. “Gallivanting,” waiting upon the ladies, was as polite in expression as in action; whilst a clergyman at Paule’s Crosse thought nothing of bidding a noisy hearer “hold his ‘gab,’” or “shut up his ‘gob.’” But then the essence of preaching was to indulge in idiomatic phrases and colloquialisms—a practice now almost peculiar to itinerant “ranters.” “Gadding,” roaming about in an idle and vacant manner, was used in an old translation of the Bible; and “to do anything ‘gingerly’” was to do it with great care. Persons of modern affected tastes will be shocked to know that the great Lord Bacon spoke of the lower part of a man’s face as his “gills,” though the expression is not more objectionable than the generality of metaphor, and is considerably more respectable than many words admitted to the genteel—we use the word advisedly—vocabulary.

Shakspeare also used many words which are now counted dreadfully vulgar. “‘Clean’ gone,” in the sense of out of sight, or entirely away; “you took me all ‘a-mort,’” or confounded me; “it wont ‘fadge,’” or suit, are phrases taken at random from the great dramatist’s works. These phrases are the natural outcome of the poet’s truth to life in the characters he portrayed. A London costermonger, or inhabitant of the streets, instead of saying, “I’ll make him yield,” or “give in,” in a fight or contest, would say, “I’ll make him ‘buckle’ under.” Shakspeare in his Henry the Fourth (part ii. act i. scene 1), has the word; and Mr. Halliwell, one of the greatest and most industrious of living antiquaries, informs us that “the commentators do not supply another example.” If Shakspeare was not a pugilist, he certainly anticipated the terms of the prize-ring—or they were respectable words before the prize-ring was thought of—for he has “pay,” to beat or thrash, and “pepper,” with a similar meaning; also “fancy,” in the sense of pets and favourites,—pugilists are often termed “the ‘fancy.’” The origin of the term, as applied to them, has, however, never been[26] satisfactorily decided, though Pierce Egan and others since his time have speculated ingeniously on the subject. The Cant word “prig,” from the Saxon priccan, to filch, is also Shakspearian; so, indeed, is “piece,” a contemptuous term for a young woman. Shakspeare was not the only vulgar dramatist of his time. Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, Brome, and other play-writers, occasionally, and very naturally, put Cant words into the mouths of their low characters, or employed old words which have since degenerated into vulgarisms. “Crusty,” poor tempered; “two of a kidney,” two of a sort; “lark,” a piece of fun; “lug,” to pull; “bung,” to give or pass; “pickle,” a sad plight; “frump,” to mock, are a few specimens casually picked from the works of the old histrionic writers.

One old English mode of canting, simple enough, but affected only by the most miserable impostors, was the inserting a consonant betwixt each syllable; thus, taking g, “How do you do?” would be “Howg dog youg dog?” The name very properly given to this disagreeable nonsense, we are informed by Grose, was gibberish.

Another slang has been manufactured by transposing the initial letters of words, so that a mutton chop becomes a chutton mop, and a pint of stout a stint of pout; but it is satisfactory to know that it has gained no ground, as it is remarkable for nothing so much as poverty of resource on the part of its inventors. This is called “Marrowskying,” or “Medical Greek,” from its use by medical students at the hospitals. Albert Smith termed it the “Gower Street Dialect,” and referred to it occasionally in his best-known works.

The “Language of Ziph,” it may be noted, is another rude mode of disguising English, in use among the students at Winchester College. Some notices of this method of conveying secret information, with an extensive Glossary of the Words, Phrases, Customs, &c., peculiar to the College, may be found in Mr. Mansfield’s School Life at Winchester College. It is certainly too puerile a specimen of work to find place here.