Those of us who write or read Regency and other historical fiction occasionally come across some strange words for which we have to find the definition in order to get the full sense of what was written. Georgette Heyer was not only a prolific author, she also had a certain amount of cant spoken in most of her books. It not only made her books more colorful—therefore more interesting—it also gave us a little insight into the rather exclusive language used among thieves and vagabonds.
So, exactly what is cant? According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it is
“insincere talk,” 1709, earlier it was slang for “whining of beggars” (1640s), from the verb in this sense (1560s), from Old North French canter (Old French chanter) “to sing, chant,” from Latin cantare, frequentative of canere “to sing” (see chant (v.)). Sense in English developed after 1680 to mean the jargon of criminals and vagabonds, thence applied contemptuously by any sect or school to the phraseology of its rival.
Slang, such as we might use in everyday language, is different from cant. Slang usage can change from time to time and is usually more acceptable.
… Slang is universal, whilst Cant is restricted in usage to certain classes of the community: thieves, vagrom men, and — well, their associates. … Slang boasts a quasi-respectability denied to Cant, though Cant is frequently more enduring, its use continuing without variation of meaning for many generations. [John S. Farmer, Forewords to “Musa Pedestris,” 1896
With slang in the conversation, participants may not be totally at sea with the meaning. However, cant is a horse of a different color. Many of the words’ meanings don’t come through unless you are familiar with them. Take for instance some of the cant used by Georgette Heyer:
Barque of frailty – a woman of easy virtue
Blue ruin – gin
By-blows – illegitimate children
Civil whiskers – polite small talk
Convenients – women of easy virtue
Cut a wheedle – ingratiate self with someone by lying
Cythereans – mistresses
Done to a cow’s thumb – fatigued to the point of illness/fainting
Eaten Hull cheese – drunk
Friday-faced – sad looking
Inexpressibles – breeches
Mill – brawl or fight
Not a mean bit yet – still attractive
Pinkest of pink – a very fashionable man
Pudding-house – stomach
Shoot the crow – leave in a hurry without paying
Toad-eaten – flattered and made up to
Try to break someone’s shins – borrow money
When doing research for my Regency romances, I was surprised at the large lists of words that make up cant language. I was also astonished at the number of terms used in connection with loose women or prostitutes. The following are just five of the fourteen+ cant words I found.
Demi-rep – a woman of doubtful reputation
Laced mutton – prostitute
Ladybird – woman of easy virtue
Moll – prostitute
Piece – prostitute
There are also at least 170+ Terms for People. These refer to men or women with distinctive habits or personality traits, certain looks or ones who may be in a particular profession such as prostitution.
Other categories of cant that may be found include the following with one sample:
Alcohol – dead men – empty bottles
Body parts/functions/references – Twiddle-Diddles – testicles
Clothing – ham cases – breeches that men wore
Criminal Terms – fagger – little boy put through a window to rob a house
Death and disease – livestock – lice or fleas
Emotion terms/expressions – buss blind cheeks – kiss my ass
Food – bachelor’s fare – bread, cheese and kisses
Fighting terms – Irish beauty – woman with two black eyes
Furniture/household goods – voilder – chamber pot
Gambling terms – Child’s Best Guide to the Gallows – deck of cards
Games – taw – marbles
Money – done up – ruined by gaming and extravagances
People/terms for people – addle pate – foolish fellow
Places – jakes – outhouse
Race terms – piper – a broken, winded horse
Sexual terms – pully-hawly – to have sexual intercourse
Vehicles – dilly – for diligence, 3 seater post-chaise, public stage
Weapons – barkers – pistols, spit – sword (okay, I cheated and put two samples because I love the term barkers) 🙂
As mentioned, cant was used mainly among those of the lower classes probably to confound listeners not of their class or station. Men of the peerage in Regency times picked up cant terms, perhaps because of curiosity or to protect some of their conversation or they liked the obscure-sounding terms or simply to confound family members of their activities. However, most of the terms they used were boxing and horse racing speak. I doubt seriously, though, that there was approval for gentle women to adopt cant terms in their everyday speech. If they used them, it was probably in private with other women and not out in society which would have been frowned upon.
If you are an author, have you ever used cant in your novels? Georgette Heyer gained quite a reputation for using these terms, and a couple of her novels contained a lot of cant. Janeite Deb in her article on Frederica posted on Jane Austen in Vermont’s website wrote of the heavy usage of cant in that book. The heroine and her siblings used cant terms quite fluently much to the hero’s delight. Should you read that book for the first time, be sure and have a cant list or dictionary handy. You might need it. 🙂
One article isn’t really enough to thoroughly cover cant as there are hundreds of these terms that were used over several hundred years and are still in use, to a degree, even today. So, don’t be surprised if I have a future article giving a little more information about this interesting segment of English? language. One really can’t get too much information about cant.