A New Canting Dictionary


This is an early 18th-century dictionary of ‘cant’ – the slang used by London’s criminal underworld in order to conceal their illicit activities. The dictionary’s title page states that this ‘secret’ language is known to ‘the several tribes of gypsies, beggars, shoplifters, highwaymen, foot-pads and all other clans of cheats and villains’.
‘Canting’ is the practice of using this language. ‘Cant’ is used as both a noun and a verb.

Cant and The Beggar’s Opera

With its motley crew of con artists, highwaymen and prostitutes, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) is steeped in criminal slang. Gay’s characters’ names reflect their lives of trickery and corruption, and many of them are richly defined in the pages of this book.

The name ’Lockit’ may seem fitting for a Newgate prison warden, but it also hints at the cant word ‘Lock’, ‘one that buys and conceals stollen Goods’. ‘Budge’ is ‘one that slips into a House in the dark’; a ‘Diver’ is a pickpocket; and ‘Doxies’ are ‘she-beggars, Trulls, Wenches, Whores’. Here, you can also see entries for ‘Betty’, ‘Filch’, ‘Mint’, ‘Nim’ and ‘Paddington’ – all names on Gay’s cast list alluding to thieving, extortion and highway robbery.

A New Canting Dictionary as a source for Our Country’s Good

In notes made for Our Country’s Good, the playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker lists A New Canting Dictionary among the primary sources that she might use to research her subject. When developing the production, Wertenbaker and the play’s director, Max Stafford-Clark, together with the cast of actors, researched many original historical sources. Based on a true story, Wertenbaker’s 1988 play is set in the late 18th century and concerns a group of convicts who, while serving time in a penal colony in New South Wales, put on a theatre production of George Farquhar’s Restoration comedy The Recruiting Officer.

Wertenbaker and Stafford-Clark drew on canting dictionaries, like this one, when creating the convicts’ speech. Elements of Liz Morden’s extended monologue in Act 2, Scene 1, when she is in chains and awaiting execution, can be ‘translated’ or deciphered using these pages: look out for slang terms such as ‘wiper’ (‘handkerchief’), ‘wap’ (‘to lie with a man’, i.e. to prostitute oneself), ‘trine’ (‘to hang’) and ‘dimber-mort’ (‘a pretty Wench’).

Full title:
A New Canting Dictionary: comprehending all the terms, antient and modern, used in the several tribes of gypsies, beggars, shoplifters ... and all other clans of cheats and villains. Interpsersed with proverbs, phrases, figurative speeches ... With a preface, giving an account of the original progress, &c. of the canting crew ... To which is added a complete collection of songs in the canting dialect.
1725, London
Book / Dictionary
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

Full catalogue details

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