Cant or Can’t?

Cant or Can’t?

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.



Frederica – ‘Cutting One’s Eye Teeth on Georgette Heyer’s Regency Cant

Joanna Waugh’s Cant List of Terms

Online Etymology Dictionary

1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue PDF

20 Responses to Cant or Can’t?

  1. I once wrote a skit for my Jane Austen group, using all the many Regency words for drinking and being drunk. It was pretty funny, and much better than reading aloud a list of them. No, I didn’t know all these words you’ve posted, though I have read all the Heyer Regency novels.

    • Thank you, Teresa. I just learned a new word from the 12th century. I use the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and for anachronisms and words in general. Joanna Waugh’s Cant pages I like because the cant is by topic. And when I get bored 🙂 I flip through the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue to get more acquainted with that little known language of the lower classes in earlier centuries. I use it very little in my books, but, who knows, I may do a Georgette Heyer type novel in the future. Thanks for your comment.

  2. What an interesting post. Many of my online friends have discussed Heyer and I have seen their reviews on her books. It would mean my breaking away from my JAFF fascination and I’m not ready to do that just yet. Maybe someday I’ll read a Heyer book. Perhaps your future posts on cant will give me an incentive.

    • I’ve read a couple of Heyer’s books and enjoyed them, but I’m caught up in my P&P fascination too and find it hard to read any other fiction as long as I haven’t read all the P&P’s. Maybe one day I’ll get through my TBR list. Yeah right! 🙂

  3. Very enjoyable post. I’ve bookmarked all of them for when ‘I am quite at leisure’ as Mr Bennett would say!!

  4. I had heard of a number of these thanks to my collection of Georgette Heyer’s books. But some were new to me. Judging by the number of words for women of ill repute, that must have been a most popular occupation??.
    Thank you for sharing this information, perhaps I should go and tend to my ‘livestock’ 🙂

  5. Thank you for a fun post, Gianna. I guess I have used some Cant. I didn’t know it, though. I’m simply familiar with some of the terms. As you said, there are ones still in use today. I bet you, someday, people will have a post like this about emojies (or whatever the equivalent of ‘posts’ will be in 200 years). It was funny what you said about the number of references to women of questionable repute. That’s what I was thinking as well – so many of these words refer to women and drink, which seems rather telling.

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Elaine. Be sure and go to Joanna Waugh’s Cant page. There are several hundred terms on that page by category. And the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar tongue has many, many more. However, they are in alphabetical order and not by category.

      I do have to add one I just found. Twiddle-Diddles – testicles. Oh, my. hehehehehehehe! 🙂

  6. What a funny read. Thank you so much for sharing and I will be looking forward to future articles.
    Buss blind cheeks, I thought that was rather sweet compared to the translation.

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