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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Small dictionaries and curiosity. Lexicography and fieldwork in post-medieval Europe


The lexicography of the talk of vagabonds had already come a long way in continental Europe by the end of the fifteenth century: wordlists had been made in Basel, Dijon, Florence, Urbino, and Zurich. There are no corresponding wordlists, nor any other record suggesting that wandering beggars used distinctive words, from fifteenth- century England. In 1530, one of John Palsgrave’s English-French wordlists had an entry ‘I Speke a pedlars frenche or a gyberische or any contrefait langaige / Ie iargonne’, and this suggests that the concept of a cryptolect was available to speakers of English, presumably because cryptolects like those associated with the French word jargonner were known in England.[1] The English judicial records to this effect are surprisingly late. Two female vagabonds arrested in Essex in 1580 were heard to speak ‘Pedlar’s French’ to each other; a drunken man arrested in Warwick in 1581 ‘could cant’; the Recorder of London reported some words of thieves’ language in a letter of 1585.47 By this time, several texts documenting the cryptolect of English vagrants were already in print. This cryptolect is called pedlars’ French in printed texts from Palsgrave onwards, and canting as early as 1566-1567, but it is now conventionally known as cant.

It has been suggested that ‘independent evidence’ for a criminal cryptolect in early modern England, ‘indisputably uncontaminated by rogue literature, is practically nonexistent’ (the English rogue literature begins around 1536, in which case only Palsgrave’s reference antedates it—and that could conceivably have been contaminated by a French source), and that such a cryptolect is indeed unlikely ever to have existed.[2] One counter-argument would of course be that such cryptolects certainly did exist in continental Europe, and that the English evidence looks much stronger taken with the Continental evidence than it does by itself. Another would be that the early modern English cryptolect lives on, variously transformed and fragmented. Just as Rotwelsch continues to be used in and beyond Germany, and just as there is a continuous tradition of the attestation of argot from the early modern period to the twentieth century, so the English cant of the early modern period is the ancestor of Scottish Traveller Cant (but not of Irish Traveller Cant), and a number of lexical items first recorded in the cant vocabularies are, as we shall see shortly, now in general use.[3] The wordlists of cant are not ample, and they may sometimes have included forms which their compilers had made up, but there is no reason to doubt that they did document real language varieties, which played an important part in the lives of some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in England.

The first text presenting the ‘bousy speech | lagged and ragged’ of English vagrants is a seven-line passage in the translator and printer Robert Copland’s verse dialogue The Hye Way to the Spyttell Hous, an expanded adaptation of Balsac’s Droit chemin, published around 1536.[4] This passage concentrates a number of cant words into a rhyming verse, and may reflect a virtuoso performance by a user of cant (it has been compared with such a performance recorded in the twentieth century) or may have been put together by Copland himself.[5] It appears to have had few successors in the next decades. When an English description of kinds of vagabond in the Liber vagato- rum tradition was eventually published, namely The Fraternitie of Vacabondes, a ten- leaf pamphlet printed by (and conventionally attributed to) John Awdely, of which there was an edition in 1565, it lacked a wordlist.[6]

So it was that the first wordlist of English cant appeared in A Caueat for Commen Cursetors, by the Kentish landowner and magistrate Thomas Harman, of which the first edition, of which no copy is extant, was in the printer’s hands in November 1566, and the second edition appeared in 1567, followed by several more in the next few years.[7] The Caueat is a slim volume of thirty leaves, but even as such, it is more substantial than The Fraternitie of Vacabondes, and is also socially smarter: it bears the name of its author and makes his rank apparent, and it is dedicated to the great landowner Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury. Most of its text is in the form of a catalogue of kinds of vagabond, enriched with many anecdotes, which goes back, like Pini’s Speculum cerratanorum and Rabustel’s fifteenth-century Dijon wordlist, to the ‘Basler Betrugnisse’; in Harman’s case, the line of influence is perhaps through the Liber vaga- torum tradition.

Harman’s wordlist comprises 114 cant-English entries, divided into nouns and verbs, with some subject-ordering. Some occur in Copland’s Hye Way or in The Fraternitie of Vacabondes—one of these tracts may be the ‘small breefe’ which Harman acknowledges as a predecessor of his work—but a good number are first attested in the Caueat, and at least some of these are independently attested in other sources.[8] For instance, cove ‘fellow’ is first attested in Harman but was evidently widespread in nineteenth-century England and is therefore unlikely to be Harman’s own invention; drawers ‘breeches’, filch ‘steal, rob’, glimmer ‘fire, flickering light’, and several other words are all likewise first attested in his list and well attested from later but undoubtedly independent sources.[9] There seems, therefore, to be no reason to doubt that at least some of the words in Harman’s list derive from his own records of spoken language.[10] These had been gathered in much the same circumstances as Matthias Hutlin’s. Harman states in his dedicatory epistle that he had always made generous arrangements for poor travellers, and that a period of illness had recently kept him at his house more than usual, so that he could actually meet some of the people to whom his servants had been giving alms, and ‘talke and confere dayly with many of these wyly wanderars’, making ‘fay- thfull promesse . . . vnto them neuer to discouer their names or any thinge they shewed me’.[11] The publication of the Caveat, in which real vagrants are named, was a breach of such a promise, but Harman evidently felt no more compunction than the author of

La vie genereuse at the idea of revealing the secrets of the undeserving poor.[12] In particular, their ‘leud lousey language, which ‘they terme Peddelars Frenche’ (in the dedicatory epistle, Harman had mentioned ‘pedlers Frenche or canting’) needed to be made public, because, since it is known only to them, they use it to ‘bye and sell [‘deceive, manipulate’] the common people as they passe through the country’.[13] The wordlist is followed by a dialogue and then by some crude woodcuts of instruments of punishment; its setting is, then, more explicitly punitive than those of its continental European contemporaries.

Harman’s wordlist reappeared, reduced to eighty-eight entries and still in cant- English order, in a readable little book on the London underworld, Thomas Dekker’s Lanthorne and Candle-Light of 1608, a sequel to Dekker’s Belman of London of the same year.[14] ‘The Language of Canting is a kind of Musick’, Dekker remarked in Lanthorne and Candle-Light, alluding to the speculative etymology of cant from Latin cantare ‘sing, and some of its words ‘retaine a certaine salt, tasting of some wit, and some Learning’.[15] Having argued for the status of cant as a language, Dekker remarked that since

(within so narrow a circle as I have drawne to my selfe) it is impossible to imprint a Dictionary of all the Canting phrases, I will at this time not make you surfet on too much, but as if you were walking in a Garden, you shall onely pluck here a flower, and there another, which (as I take it) wilbe more delightfull then if you gathered them by Handfulls.[16]

He went on to reprint Copland’s verses, inviting the reader to translate them, and to present his ‘Canters Dictionary, noting that it would not repeat any of the words which he had glossed in his discussion so far, ‘for our intent is to feast you with variety’.[17] The tone here is considerably more genial than in Harman’s Caveat. Dekker was a professional writer with a story to tell, rather than a wealthy landowner with a dislike of the people who abused his almsgiving.

Dekker’s adaptation of Harman’s list reappeared in a number of his own books: Lanthorne and Candle-Light ran to a second edition in 1609 before being absorbed into O per se O in 1616, which became Villanies Discouered in 1620, and reached its last edition as English Villanies Eight Severall Times Prest to Death by the Printers in 1648. The wordlist was increased slightly in an edition of 1632, but from an edition of Harman’s Caveat rather than from observation in the field.64 Robert Burton copied it from one of the versions of Lanthorne and Candle-Light as a supplement to his copy of The Belman of London, evidence that it might be valued by a seventeenth-century reader.[18] A response to Dekker’s work, S. R.’s Martin Mark-All, appeared in 1610, pointing out that the wordlist which Dekker presented was in fact based on Harman’s, and proclaiming that ‘I . . . haue enlarged his Dictionary (or Master Harmans) with such wordes as I thinke hee neuer heard of (and yet in vse too).’[19] The Martin Mark-All version of the list ran to 130 entries, with special signs to mark those added to, or corrected from, Dekker’s list; at least one of these, tip ‘give (money)’ looks like a new observation of real usage.[20]

The next expansion and reworking of Harman’s list was in a picaresque text which included autobiographical material, Richard Head’s The English Rogue of 1665.[21] The first edition of The English Rogue presented a cant-English list of 154 headwords, based on Dekker’s abridgement of Harman.[22] Like the narrator of La vie genereuse, Head claimed that he had learned the language of the beggars in the course of his life among them, and observation of real usage is indeed evident in his additions to Dekker’s material, as it was in the expansions of Dekker’s wordlist in Martin Mark-All. For instance, betty ‘crowbar’ and peter ‘portmanteau’ first appear in Head’s list and are then attested from what appear to be several independent sources. The handwritten addition of material from Head’s wordlist to a copy of Dekker’s English Villanies Eight Severall Times Prest to Death indicates an attentive reading of Head’s material, and also a continuing interest in Dekker’s work after Head’s had been published.[23]

The English Rogue ran to several further editions: unabridged with a full wordlist, abridged with an abridged wordlist, and abridged with no wordlist at all. Its wordlist was further expanded to 260 headwords in a picaresque miscellany of Head’s, The Canting Academy of 1673, which also offered an English-cant list, and these two lists continued to be published in various popular books until the second half of the eighteenth century. The whole Harman-Dekker-Head tradition extended for two centuries. By the end of the seventeenth century, however, curiosity-driven field lexicography of English thieves’ cant as a separate language variety had really petered out: on the one hand, new material ceased to be added to wordlists in the tradition, and on the other, the lexicography of ‘the terms ancient and modern of the canting crew, as a dictionary of the late 1690s put it, expanded to register all sorts of colloquial and specialized English words, among which cant no longer formed a special category.[24]

  • [1] Palsgrave, Lesclaircissement fo. 368r. 47 Beier, ‘Anti-language or jargon?’ 71-2.
  • [2] Woodbridge, Vagrancy10.
  • [3] See Girtler, Rotwelsch,passim; Sainean, Sources de l’argot ancien, ‘Glossaire etymologique’ (2: 263-468)passim; Hancock, ‘Cryptolectal speech’ 208-9.
  • [4] Copland, Hye Way, sig. E3v = Poems (1993) 219, with notes on this passage ibid. 244-5.
  • [5] For the comparison, see Hancock, ‘Cryptolectal speech’ 209.
  • [6] The date and attribution of The Fraternitie are both problematic (see Chester, ‘Date and authorship’for an early recognition of the problem, discussed Woodbridge, Vagrancy 75 n 4). The attribution dependson whether Awdely’s claim to have ‘set . . . forth’ the book (Fraternitie [1575], sig. A1v) refers to authorshipor printing. As for the date, Awdely entered ‘a ballett Called the Description of vakaboundes’ in theStationers’ Register in 1561 (Arber, Transcript 1.157). If this really was a ballad; it is lost. Perhaps it is to beidentified with The Fraternitie, of which there was an edition of 1565 (STC 993; only a stray title page survives) and one of 1575 (STC 994). Or perhaps it is to be identified with the half-sheet ‘Here begynneth the.xxiiii. orders of knaues’ (STC 995.5), which is an early version of the concluding prose section of TheFraternitie.
  • [7] Overview in Woodbridge, Vagrancy 74 n 1; for the first date, see Harman, Caveat, sig. D2v, AponAlhollenday in the morning last. Anno domini. 1566. or my booke was halfe printed I meane the firstimpressio[n]’. Robert Burton noted in his copy of Dekker’s Belman of London that Harman’s book hadappeared ‘The xith daye of November A° dni. 1566’ (Kiessling, Library of Robert Burton item 441); this maybe his inference from Harman’s words, though All Hallows’ Day was the first of November, not the eleventh, or he may have seen a copy with that date written on it.
  • [8] Coleman, History of Cant and Slang Dictionaries 22-8; the ‘small breefe’ is mentioned at Harman,Caveat, sig. A2v.
  • [9] See OED s.vv. cove n, drawers, filch, glimmer n1, pad n3, prat n3, and queer adj2 (with interesting furtherdiscussion of the last in Durkin, Oxford Guide to Etymology 216-18).
  • [10] Pace Woodbridge, Vagrancy 61, ‘can one believe anything that Harman says? What if he simply stolesome of his information and made up the rest, without interviewing vagrants at all?’
  • [11] Harman, Caveat, sigs. A2r-v.
  • [12] The point is discussed at Woodbridge, Vagrancy 58-9. For the vagrants named by Harman and identifiable in judicial records, see Aydelotte, Elizabethan Rogues 150-1.
  • [13] Harman, Caveat, sig. G2v; reference to canting ibid. sig. A4r.
  • [14] Coleman, History of Cant and Slang Dictionaries 35-7.
  • [15] Dekker, Lanthorne and Candle-Light, sigs. B3r-v.
  • [16] Dekker, Lanthorne and Candle-Light, sig. B4r. 6 Dekker, Lanthorne and Candle-Light, sig. B4v.
  • [17] 64 Coleman, History of Cant and Slang Dictionaries 37.
  • [18] Kiessling, Library of Robert Burton, item 441. 2 S. R., Martin Mark-All, sig. E1v.
  • [19] 67 Coleman, History of Cant and Slang Dictionaries 42.
  • [20] 68 Coleman, History of Cant and Slang Dictionaries 47-70.
  • [21] 69 Head, English Rogue (1665) 30-5. The edition purporting to be of 1665 with a longer, and lightlycensored, wordlist at 47-53, identified by Coleman, History of Cant and Slang Dictionaries 50-1 as a secondedition of 1665, is in fact a reprint of 1874, the text and typography of which are based on an edition of 1667or later. Caveat lector: digital images of what appears to be a 1665 English Rogue are often of this reprint,identifiable by the crispness of the typography and by the page range on which the wordlist appears, andpage images of the original are not, at the time of writing, available on EEBO. They can be viewed on reel
  • [22] 102 of the UMI microfilm series English Books 1641-1700.
  • [23] Coleman, History of Cant and Slang Dictionaries 37-9.
  • [24] Coleman, History of Cant and Slang Dictionaries 76-126.
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