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Cant: The Language of the Criminal Underworld

Go to The American Malefactor's Dictionary

Cant, or flash as it is sometimes called, is a specialized language used by criminals to keep communication about their intentions and actions from being understood by their victims or the authorities. Because any language requires a distinct group of users who can speak and understand it, cant indicates the presence of at least a quasi-community of criminals who share their unlawful methods with one another and organize themselves in similar ways. The language of cant, then, provides insight into the criminal underworld and how criminals operate.

Cant dictionaries began appearing in England in the seventeenth century. Their purpose was to help protect the law-abiding public from criminals who populated the streets. Armed with their cant dictionaries, pedestrians could theoretically translate the words used by criminal populations and avoid situations that threatened their well-being. A NEW Canting DICTIONARY (1725), for instance, advertised itself as being “Useful for all Sorts of People (especially Travellers and Foreigners) to enable them to secure their Money and preserve their Lives.”

In 1859, the Chief of Police of New York, George Matsell, published the first cant dictionary in America entitled Vocabulum; or, The Rogue’s Lexicon. In it, Matsell claimed that “The rogue fraternity have a language peculiarly their own, which is understood and spoken by them no matter what their dialect, or the nation where they were reared. Many of their words and phrases, owing to their comprehensive meaning, have come into general use, so that a Vocabulum or Rogue’s Lexicon, has become a necessity to the general reader, but more especially to those who read police intelligence.” His book became standard issue for police officers in the nineteenth century until it fell out of favor at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Cant words often refer to criminal practices and techniques, and they can be used to confuse potential victims or to hide the intentions of criminals. Pickpockets, for example, can use cant to point out a potential victim to one another, even if that person is within earshot of the communication.

Some cant words have consistently appeared across generations of criminals, which indicates that at least some of the words that show up in these cant dictionaries do indeed have real meaning for this deviant group. Many of the words cataloged by early cant dictionaries crossed the ocean from England to America–some of them, no doubt, brought over by transported convicts–and continue to survive today. For example, shiv, the term for an improvised knife-like weapon created by inmates in a prison, has its roots in eighteenth-century England when it took the form chife or chive and was defined as “A knife, file, or saw.”

Attempts to systematize cant are often met with difficulty. Cant is essentially an oral language, so compiling a list of cant words and their meanings doesn’t convey the true context in which they are used. Practitioners of cant also have an interest in hiding the true meaning of the words and limiting their understanding to “members only.” Because users of the language try to keep outsiders from understanding it, the ability to speak cant serves as a quick way of identifying members of a criminal network or group and is a sign that the speaker can be trusted to some degree.

Cant offers an unusual glimpse into the hidden world of crime and criminals, so Early American Crime will be starting a new weekly feature that will define and explain a “cant word of the week.” I will try as much as possible to identify words and terms that are American in origin or use, and I will limit my selections to those that were in circulation during the nineteenth century or before. Over time, these entries will come together to create an “American Malefactor’s Dictionary,” and they may even help to protect you the next time you find yourself walking down a dark alleyway.


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