How a Secret Criminal Language Emerged From the Underworld

If you were a thief in 1700s England, and wanted to tell a fellow thief that you had spotted a naive rich man (“rum cully”) and you can’t wait to rob his house (“heave the booth”), but you don’t want some do-gooder to overhear and send you to the gallows (“nubbing cheat”)—how would you communicate this without tipping off authorities or scaring away your precious mark?

During the 16th through 19th centuries, your answer would be to speak in Thieves’ Cant. This secret language, known as a cant or cryptolect, has long since fallen into disuse. But despite its covert purpose and disputed origins, it has had a surprising impact on contemporary spoken English—in fact, you might even speak a bit like an old-time thief yourself.

Thieves’ Cant, also known as Flash or Peddler’s French, existed in many forms across Europe. The cant flourished in England during a 16th-century population boom, when less work was available amid greater competition and crime appeared to be on the rise, according to Maurizio Gotti in his 1999 book The Language of Thieves and Vagabonds. Many early cant speakers, who often were peasants or newly jobless soldiers, were considered “particularly numerous and dangerous” by more well-off groups.

These thieves and rogues lived free, lawless lives, and met in “flash houses” (public gathering spots) to find camaraderie and share useful intel about the area. King Henry VIII announced in the early 1500s that vagabonds were ransacking the countryside, supporting reports that an estimated 13,000 “rogues and masterless men” were running amok, according to Gotti. While the number of masterless men may have been an exaggeration, their heightened visibility meant there was an increased interest in criminal activity among non-vagabonds. Those excluded from the underworld wanted to learn about it, at least partially in order to safeguard themselves.

Read more: Atlas Obscura

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

20 − 12 =