Sunday, January 27, 2013

Early 18th Century British Underworld Slang

The Thieves Cant (or language) is a work written sometime between 1690 and 1720 by one B.E. Gent in London. It purports to be a dictionary of terms of art of the various "underworld" groups of the time: thieves, gypsies, beggars and so forth.

Its full title is:
A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient & Modern of the Canting Crew, in its several tribes, gypsies, beggars, thieves, cheats, &c.
In other words, this is underworld slang from what historians call the Early Modern Period in England..

The term "canting crew" is itself completely obscure to me, but it may refer to beggars, and their "cant", or speech, or possibly their begging rap.

When looking up the meaning of "canting crew", I came across the following review in The Nation:

It is the case that subgroups of this type, e.g. outsiders, have always had their own "language", usually a vocabulary used by members of this group and the people they interact with. We have them all the time to this day, particularly with various groups of outcasts from polite society such as economists, philosophers, astrophysicists and so-called visual effects practitioners, who must disguise their anti-social and disagreeable beliefs behind a cloud of mysterious jargon known only to the elect.

Exactly how correctly this work describes the actual language used by these groups is not clear to me. But it is amusing in its own right whatever its historical accuracy.

Entry in online library:

Scan of The Thieves Cant in PDF form:

Text of The Thieves Cant

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