Accents and dialects have been well studied and valued by linguists, but cants continue to be a mystery — and some of that mystery is willful. Occasionally called cryptolects, argots or even anti-languages, cants are created by communities, many of them marginalized, to maintain secrecy and protect group dynamics in order to survive.
There are several different groups that have created cants, and for various reasons. Some of the most famous were made by criminals who were trying to keep their conversations a secret. But on the flip side, even something like Pig Latin — the language used by children where you take the first letter of each word, put it at the end and add “ay” — is a kind of cant. Here, we’ll look at four of the most famous cants from history and show you how they work.
Also known as rogues’ cant or peddler’s French, thieves’ cant developed as a strategy by criminals to avoid being understood by officers of the law and society at large. The first written allusions surfaced in the 16th century and coincided with the Elizabethan era. Thomas Hartman, a 16th Century magistrate, left one of the first written testimonies of thieves’ cant, which he amassed by offering money and food to beggars in exchange for information on their cryptolect. In 1811, a full lexicon of thieves cant was published: the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit and Pickpocket Eloquence. While not many people use thieves’ cant today, the dictionary includes words such as “cloy” (steal) and “game” (robbery) alongside “jail bird” (prisoner) and “pig” (officer of the law), of which the latter two are still used to this day.
A Short Thieves’ Cant Glossary
- bawd — a sex worker
- birds of a feather — rogues of the same gang
- fagger — a small boy passed through a window in order to open the door to a house
- flog — whip
- hike — to run away
- lift — steal
- palaver — a tale told in order avoid blame for a crime
- pound — prison
- prig — thief
- rap — taking a false oath
- rascal — rogue or villain
- rat — an informer
- shoplifter — one who steals from a shop
- sham — a trick
- slang — thieves’ cant
- to squeak — to confess
- swag — booty
Though many words survive — and new words have entered the lexicon of the criminal underworld — the cant is no longer used as it once was. The legacy of thieves’ cant lives on in people’s desire to escape the constraints of mainstream society’s policing and to demarcate their communities.
Cockney Rhyming Slang
The church of St. Mary-le-Bow in the East End of London is the epicenter of Cockney culture — or at least it used to be. The area that saw Cockney rhyming slang come to life in the 19th century has been taken over by a myriad of cultures from all over the globe, and no longer speaks exclusively in the nasal tones and glottal stops of Michael Caine or Adele. But it still tells the story of a subculture that developed its own cant. Cockney rhyming slang was a lingo created to prevent its speakers from being understood by outsiders.
This slang plays with shortened and absent rhymes. For instance, “face” rhymes with “boat race,” but we remove the word “race” and keep “boat.” Now, instead of falling on my face — or my “boat race” — I have fallen on my boat. Another example: Instead of saying “He is on the phone,” substitute “phone” for a rhyme and say, “He is on the dog and bone.” But after dropping the “bone” we are left with “dog,” resulting in, “He’s on the dog.”
Examples Of Cockney Rhyming Slang
|“They never do anything, just rabbit!”
|rabbit and pork
|“My plates are killing me!”
|plates of meat
|“My trouble phoned me yesterday.”
|trouble and strife
|“She’s my skin.”
|skin and blister
|“He’s my treacle.”
|“Have you got any Veras?”
|Vera Lynn (famous singer)
|“gin” or “skin” (cigarette paper)
|“I’ve just bought an expensive whistle!”
|whistle and flute
Sexually marginalized subgroups can develop their own lingo, but a full cant with mainstream recognition developed in England and infiltrated popular culture in the 20th century. Named Polari — and occasionally Parlari (from the Italian “to speak”) — Polari’s origins are convoluted and possibly older than many assume. We can say with certainty that it became a noticeable cultural phenomenon in the 1800s; it peaked in the 20th century between the trial of Oscar Wilde and the 1960s; and it dwindled in the 1970s.
Polari has also been associated with the merchant navy, travelers and circus people. Some authors distinguish between Parlyaree and Polari, the latter exclusively spoken by the gay community, which used the cant to shield itself from mainstream society’s policing and censorship. It borrowed and adapted words from Italian, Yiddish, English (including dialects such as Cockney slang), circus and Romani slang.
Polari can’t technically be described as a dialect or idiom because it consists primarily of words being substituted for others. For instance, the phrase “How bona to vada your dolly old eek!” means “How lovely to see your pretty old face!” Bona stands for “good” or “lovely,” vada for “see,” dolly for “pretty” or “pleasant,” and eek for “face.” This exotic mix of words and terms could be heard on Round the Horne, a BBC radio comedy show that included the characters Julian and Sandy, played by the actors Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams. The show juggled heavily with camp innuendo, with the two gay actors playing very exaggerated characters. The audience became slowly familiar with the lingo, leading to Polari rising from the underground into the mainstream. It was precisely at that moment that it was superseded by a liberationist gay culture. Homosexuality was made legal in England in 1967, and with it came a new open culture of sexual assertiveness and visibility. Polari, once a survival strategy for an entire community, had lost its raison d’être.
Decades have passed since Polari fell into disuse. Yet while baby boomers were eager to leave it behind, a newfound interest by millennials has asserted itself, with clubs such as Madame JoJo’s in London encouraging their staffs to use Polari with the patrons. It dispels any notions that there was no such thing as a gay culture and that language is merely the product of powerful social groups.
Polari has also been described as an anti-language. Anti-languages are not only vessels for codified and secretive communication — which we could call cryptolects — they are also a linguistic strategy for marking identity. Polari’s lexicon includes a critique of institutions and their representatives (police officers and the law), as well as opposing groups (heterosexuals) and religious systems entrapped in their acidic tones. If Polari’s tongue is something you find appealing, there are apps you can download which will help you learn the argot. Polari seems to be part of a contemporary cultural movement intent on reclaiming lost culture and reviving long-lost rituals.
Whatever point of view you take, now you know what the title of that Morrissey album actually means.
Useful Polari Words
- bona — good
- drag — clothes
- vada — see
- eek — face
- dolly — pretty, pleasant
- riah — hair
- slap — make-up
- fantabulosa — fantastic + fabulous
- dish — gossip or attractive
- handbag — money
French has also developed its own cants, the most well-known of them being Verlan. It’s an argot that reverses syllables to create a broken mirror image of the French language.
The Verlan cant is associated with adolescents and young adults in the suburbs of Paris, the banlieues, where immigrants and the working class live. Its method, however, can’t be described as entirely new. Gottfried von Strassburg, the 12th century author of Tristan, which itself is an adaptation of the 12th century Tristan and Isolde legend, is a good contender for the title of Verlan’s “originator.” In his version of the legend, Tristan travels to Ireland undercover, identifying himself as Tantris, a syllabic reversal of his true name (Tris-tan → Tan-tris). A few centuries later, the syllable-flipping idea caught on.
The first recorded version of Verlan with communal — not just individual — use harkens back to imprisoned criminals in 19th-century France who used the cant to communicate among themselves to avoid detection by officers and authority figures. By the 1970s, it grew out of the prison system into the banlieues, and it was adopted by rap groups. It only became common currency in youth culture in the 1980s, when marginalized adolescents and young adults began using it to communicate with each other.
The word “Verlan” itself is a result of inverting l’envers (backwards) into vers-l’en, which is streamlined into verlan for greater spelling ease. Verlan not only twisted old words into new ones, it actually changed their meanings. For instance, femme (woman) was turned into meuf (me + fem → mef (em) → meuf). Well, maybe this is not the most obvious of examples, but ma meuf is now used to refer to “my girlfriend” or “my girl,” whereas ma femme is now mostly used to mean “my wife”.
Another example from a word that has gained common currency: ouf, the Verlan of fou (crazy). If your night out was a spectacle of decadence, you can describe it as ouf; it’s enough to state how insane it was. And if it brought you much heartache, you can say it left you vénère (énervè → “annoyed”).
|drop it/forget it
|“heavy” (an annoying person)
|awesome, amazing (whereas méchant means “mean”)
But a strange thing has happened to Verlan. Ever since it surfaced and some words became mainstream, it lost its edge. So, re-verlan took over! Now some words are reversed again (!) in an attempt to keep them sharp and spiky!
|cop (police officer)
Re-verlan is an attempt to keep the culture one step ahead of assimilation. But this is hard to do when the Internet keeps revealing underground culture at the click of a search engine, and when Googling rebeu regurgitates myriad results — not all of them safe for work!
One would assume all words could be subjected to this cant, but not everything is acceptable Verlan. For instance, a famous ad by the railway company SNCF in France included the tagline c’est blessipo, the Verlan of c’est possible (“it’s possible”). It failed miserably, since nobody would actually say that.
Whatever you might think about cants — whether they destroy the purity of a tongue or enrich it — they’ll remain a part of language as long as subgroups, subcultures and creativity exist.