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Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Cant from the Renaissance to the Regency

A brief history of Cant
Theoretically there is no cant recorded in the time of Felicia and Robin but in the late 16th century, lo and behold it is being recorded in a very great deal of detail, this complex alternate language.
Granted, there was a lot more vagabondage after the Reformation when the welfare state that had been the monastaries collapsed, and there was more need for a secret language.

I contend however that it did not appear out of nowhere, suddenly and off the shelf, fairly universally in Britain.  The only language which has done that is Esperanto, which has a similar origin in being an artificial language although Esperanto was invented to make communication clearer; Cant was invented to obscure it. Naturally Cant has been the most successful.....

There is some evidence to suggest that some canting terms come from the language of the Rom otherwise known as Gypsies or in the Tudor era Egyptians.  They were very rare early in the 16th century but again were sufficiently widespread later in the century to be likely to have had a small ongoing presence; like the Jews who may have been expelled in the 13th century but were sufficient in numbers by the 17th century to request permission to build a synagogue. The granting of this permission was a tacit invitation to settle on the part of Cromwell but that's another story.

Pogrums do not necessarily get rid of everyone thank goodness....

Hence I'm using some canting terms in the Felicia and Robin series for flavour with the criminals they deal with.  It may not be strictly accurate, I've tried to make a judgement call on what feels 'well used' by the later era.  The excellent book by Gamini Salgado 'The Elizabethan Underworld' gives an excellent flavour, albeit of late Tudor skullduggery; I have drawn the vocabulary from there.

What really surprised me when I read Salgado's book was how close were the terms to those being used by Georgette Heyer - one of my favourite authors - when she portrayed cant-using ruffians of the Regency.  There is a most excellent resource online for Georgian and Regency cant, all nicely referenced and dated; see it in my sidebar links.  The sources are Collection of Canting Words from Nathan Bailey's 1737 The New Canting Dictionary and the 1811 Lexicon Balatronicum based on Francis Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue and the glossary from the Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux, published in 1819.

I'll try to get around to a less overwhelming glossary than is presented here at some point.

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