The Canting Crew

Cant, or the language of thieves and scoundrels, was a popular lexicon in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. By speaking in slang, the criminal underclass was able to distance itself from detection by the authorities. There were several Canting dictionaries published in this period; the first by Thomas Harman, both in his Caveat for Common Cursitors (1567) and in his The groundworke of conny-catching, the manner of their pedlers-French, and the meanes to vnderstand the same with the cunning slights of the counterfeit cranke : therein are h[a]nd[l]ed the practises of the visiter, the fetches of the shifter and rufflar, the deceits of their doxes, the deuises of priggers, the names of the base loytering losels, and the meanes of euery blacke-art-mans shifts, with the reproofe of all the diuellish practises / done by a iustice of peace of great authoritie, who hath had the examining of diuers of them (1597).

Thomas Dekker, playwright and pamphleteer republished Harman’s dictionary in 1608, at the end of English Villainies; a harrowing text in which he describes the conditions inside London prisons. Dekker himself had personal experience of incarceration, having been a prisoner in the King’s Bench for bad debt. What follows are some of the more colourful Canting terms described by Dekker:

To Scoure the Crampring – to wear boltes (leg irons)
Stuing Ken – a House to receive stolne goods
Ruff-Pecke – Bacon
Ruffian – the Devill
Roger, or Tib of the buttry – a Goose
Niggling – Companying with a Woman
To cut bene whiddes – To speake goode words
Margery Prater – a Hen
Pratt – a Buttocke
Bing a Wast – get you Hence
Wyn – a Penny
Boung – a Purse
Gentry Coses Ken – a noblemans house
Bowse – drinke
Dub the Giger – open the dore
Bowsing Ken – an Ale House
Chates – Gallowes
Heave a Bough – Rob a Booth
Maunding – asking
Mill – to Steale
Yraum – milke
To cly the Jerke – to be Whipped
Harman-Beck – a Constable
Harmans – stockes
Light-mans – the Day

He also includes several Canting songs, one of which goes as follows:

A Canting Song

The ruffian cly the nab of the Harman-Beck
if we Maund Pannam, lap or Ruffe peck
Or poplars of yraum: he cuts bing to the Ruff-mans,
Or else he sweares by the light-man’s
To put our stampes in the Harmans.
The ruffian cly the Ghoste of the Harman-beck,
If we heave a Booth we cly the Jerke,
If we niggle or mill a Bowsing Ken,
Or nip a boung that hath but a wyn,
Or dub the giger of a Gentrey Coses Ken,
To the quier Cuffing we bing,
And then to the quier Ken to Scowre the cramp-ring,
And then to be trin’de on the Chates in the light-mans,
The babe and the ruffian cly the Harman-Beck and Harmans.

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