Marissa has shared some delightful posts on colorful language used in the early nineteenth century in her Such Language series. (In case you missed them, I’ve provided all the links below). Now author Stephen Hart has taken matters one step further by creating an online database of 18th century and Regency thieves’ cant.
Thieves’ cant was slang developed among the criminal element, generally in the larger cities like London or Bristol. Some of it may have arisen to keep nosy types and the law from discovering what was what. But, let’s face it, every trade has its own jargon, and the thieves were no different. Jargon serves as shorthand, making conversation quicker. It also tells us who is inside the group, and who isn’t. If you were a thief or someone who had to hang about with some, you needed to be able to talk like them or at least understand what they were saying. Surprisingly, the gentlemen of the upper orders were fascinated with the language and loved to throw in the slang among themselves as well.
Hart pulled language from several dictionaries or memoirs published between 1737 and 1819, including the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, with which Marissa is so amused. He made various entries available online but also created a searchable database of terms. Be warned, it can be addicting! The left navigation bar on his site includes other databases from his research, such as London directories and clubs and taverns.
But if you’d like some of the most witty entries online about the so-called vulgar tongue, do check out Marissa’s posts. I’ll be nuts upon myself if you don’t find it a great frisk.