Wednesday 15 June 2016

The Canting Crew

Unless you're a professional lexicographer yourself, you might be excused from thinking that Samuel Johnson's  A Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, [bloboprev] was the first example of such books.  But you'd be wrong.  "A new dictionary of the terms ancient and modern of the canting crew, in its several tribes, of gypsies, beggers, thieves, cheats, &c. with an addition of some proverbs, phrases, figurative speeches, &c. Ufeful for all forts of People (efpecially Foreigners) to fecure their Money and preferve their Lives; befides very Diverting and Entertaining, being wholly New" had been compiled by "B.E." and published two generations previously in 1698. Nobody knows who B.E. be anymore that we know who was Shaxper's friend WH / HW a hundred years before that. The thing about cant, jargon and slang is that it dates quickly.  A phrase will be down with the hood one year and seem quaintly old-fashioned before an adult  can feel quite comfortable using it. I experience this every year with our 3rd year french students, with whom I share some comments in 'french'.  The problem is that all my colloquial french comes from the time my sister lived with a bearded Québécois 40 years ago. Referring to something good as c'est le pied provokes indulgent smirks from la jeunesse française. But I persist in a conscious effort to show the monoglot Irish, who make up the majority of the class, that there are languages other than English out there . . . and even educated people who don't spik Ingles verr gud.  

ANNyway back to the language of the canting crew of 300 years ago. Some of these phrases might, with utility, be given another airing in today's world? You can get the whole text in a variety of formats (plain text is more puzzle than useful; PDF is readable).
  • Arsworm - a diminutive fellow
  • Baste - to beat as, I'll baste your sides Sirrah, I'll bang you lustily.
  • Clunch - a clumsy clown an awkward or unhandy fellow.
  • Doxies - she-beggars, trulls, wenches, whores . . .
  • Ebb-water - when there's but little money in the pocket
  • Flapdragon - a clap or pox 
  • Gape-feed - whatever the gazing crowd stares and gapes after; as puppet-shows, rope-dancers, monsters, and mountebanks.
  • Hector - a vaporing, swaggering coward
  • Yarmouth capon - a red herring
  • Zany - a mountebank's Merry-Andrew, or Jester
Losing examples of old slang cuts both ways: some of them have lost all utility / currency and been replaced with other terms for the same thing. But others have become part of standard English.

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