This slang dictionary records the words and phrases spoken by the 19th-century criminal underworld – pickpockets, prostitutes, house-breakers, pimps and the like. By providing a translation to this language (like a modern-day phrasebook) A Dictionary of the Slang and Cant Languages followed a tradition of books claiming to warn innocent bystanders against the antics of criminals. The book is evidence of the growing interest in urban lowlife among the middle classes, a subject somewhat romanticised and reflected in the popular literature of the time. The list of slang terms includes the word 'twisted' meaning ‘hanged’ – the usage comes from the idea of the executed criminal twisting on the gallows, and is believed to relate to Dickens's decision to name his hero Oliver Twist and to the looming threat of execution that runs throughout the novel.
The fiction of Charles Dickens throngs with such speech. In Oliver Twist (1838), the Artful Dodger speaks almost entirely in cant – a tribute to Dickens’s ear for language and desire to experiment, as well as his research skills. Indeed, Oliver’s own inability to speak or understand cant is a key means by which Dickens establishes Oliver as different sort of character from the rest of Fagin’s gang.
In the introduction to this dictionary, the author laments the fact that thieves ‘have a Language of their own’, going on to remark:
The principle end I had in view in publishing this Dictionary, was, to expose the Cant Terms of their Language, in order to the more easy detection of their crimes; and I flatter myself, by the perusal of this Work, the Public will become acquainted with their mysterious Phrases; and better able to frustrate their designs.