Talking Cant.

Our nightly reading these days is Zadie Smith’s The Fraud; in a break from tradition, we’re letting Smith read it to us via audiobook rather than having me do the reading, since her version is supposed to be excellent and I’ve been curious to try this newfangled medium. Last night we got to a passage that I knew I had to post at LH, from ch. 18, “Talking ‘Cant’ in Chesterfield”; “he” is the (historical) author William Harrison Ainsworth:

In the evenings he was supposed to belong to Mrs Touchet, but over dinner continued outlining his first ‘proper novel’ in a great stream of talk. The plan was to take all he’d learned of the Gothic from Mrs Radcliffe and Sir Walter and apply it to a grand old English house. (For a model, Crossley had suggested Cuckfield Park, a gloomy Elizabethan mansion in Sussex.) For William, this new location meant a new aesthetic. No more exotic counts and princes. No more evil monks or scheming Italian Doges. Instead: lords and ladies, highwaymen, gravediggers, Newgate types, and all manner of simple, English, country folk. The highwayman Dick Turpin would make an appearance! And gypsies! It would be called Rookwood – after the fictionalized house at its centre – and was to be a tale of fate and murder, involving a worryingly large cast of characters, drawn from the high world and the low. Once he stayed up all night, writing a scene in which ‘Dick Turpin rode from London to York’, although what this had to do with the family saga he had previously described she could not make out. There was no point in asking rational questions. He was besotted with his project, especially the ‘flash songs’, sung by the criminal and cockney underworld characters and written in the ‘cant’ slang he had picked up somewhere. Where?

‘What do you mean, where?’

‘Well, cant is not the same wherever you go, is it? Cockney flash must be different from Scots flash, for example. And surely Manchester cant is different again.’

‘Eliza Touchet, what a curious pedant you are. Does it matter?’

‘Don’t characters have to speak believably? So we believe in them?’

‘And so they do. But I can assure you I do not frequent any place so low that I am likely to overhear flash talk or cant of any description!’

She wondered about that. […]

‘Well, then, how do you compose it?’

‘Ah. Thereby hangs a tale.’ He tapped a book on his desk: ‘Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux. There’s cant on every page. Terrible character. Shocking. Inveterate swindler, pickpocket – the man was transported three times! But later returned to England, repented and converted to the Church of Rome – which no doubt our Mrs Touchet will be very happy to hear.’

‘Sincerely converted, I hope?’

‘Oh, hang your sincerity! I’ve no clue. Though nomen est omen and all that . . .’


‘Vaux! You of all people should recognize that name. Old, recusant family in the time of Elizabeth . . . like your blessed, disembowelled Tichborne. In fact, there was a Vaux at Cuckfield at one point, if I’m not mistaken. Married one of the Boyer daughters.’

‘Give me an example.’


‘Give me an example of a line of cant.’

‘Happily! Nix my doll, pals – fake away!

Mrs Touchet laughed out loud.

‘Marvellous, isn’t it? Nonsense to good, upstanding people like ourselves, of course, but to the criminal element it’s a form of code. Which may be translated exactly. That one means: Don’t worry, lads, you carry on stealing!

‘Charming. And you learned all this from a book.’

‘Just so. Vaux rather helpfully provides a flash dictionary at the back – it’s a treasure trove. You find a phrase or word, look to the translation, and then sort of put it all together in a sentence. I tell you, with this in hand, anyone might speak the cant of the filthiest hole in Whitechapel in a moment.’

Eliza was quite sure this was not how it worked. She held her tongue.


  1. Vauxing (or perhaps Grosing) sounds akin to the established Rogeting

  2. PlasticPaddy says

    I, Crank-Cuffin, swear to be True to this fraternity;
    That I will in all obey
    Rule and order of the lay.
    Never blow the gab, or squeak;
    Never snitch to bum or beak;
    But religiously maintain
    Authority of those who reign
    Over Stop-Hole Abbey Green,
    Be they tawny king, or queen.
    In their cause alone will fight;
    Think what they think, wrong or right;
    Serve them truly, and no other,
    And be faithful to my brother;
    Suffer none, from far or near,
    With their rights to interfere;
    No strange Abram, ruffler crack,
    Hooker of another pack,
    Rogue or rascal, frater, maunderer,
    Irish toyle, or other wanderer;
    No dimber damber, angler, dancer,
    Prig of cackler, prig of prancer;
    No swigman, swaddler, clapperdudgeon;
    Cadge-gloak, curtal, or curmudgeon;
    No whip-jack, palliard, patrico;
    No jarkman, be he high or low;
    No dummerar, or romany;
    No member of “the Family;”
    No ballad-basket, bouncing buffer,
    Nor any other, will I suffer;
    But stall-off now and for ever,
    All outliers whatsoever:
    And as I keep to the foregone,
    So may help me Salamon!

    swagman, blow the gaff
    toyle from toghail?

  3. And so say we all!

  4. Not relevant, but necessary to have on record when cant is mentioned:

    I have no minute of any interview with Johnson till Thursday, May 15th, when I find what follows:

    —BOSWELL: “I wish much to be in Parliament, sir.”
    —JOHNSON: “Why, sir, unless you come resolved to support any administration, you would be the worse for being in Parliament, because you would be obliged to live more expensively.”
    —BOSWELL: “Perhaps, sir, I should be the less happy for being in Parliament. I never would sell my vote, and I should be vexed if things went wrong.”
    —JOHNSON: “That’s cant, sir. It would not vex you more in the House than in the gallery: public affairs vex no man.”
    —BOSWELL: “Have not they vexed yourself a little, sir? Have not you been vexed by all the turbulence of this reign, and by that absurd vote of the House of Commons, ‘That the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished’?”
    —JOHNSON: “Sir, I have never slept an hour less, nor ate an ounce less meat. I would have knocked the factious dog on the head, to be sure; but I was not vexed.”
    —BOSWELL: “Sir, upon my honour, I did imagine I was vexed, and took a pride in it; but it was, perhaps, cant; for I own I neither ate less, nor slept less.”
    —JOHNSON: “My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. You may talk as other people do: you may say to a man, ‘Sir, I am your most humble servant.’ You are not his most humble servant. You may say, ‘These are bad times; it is a melancholy thing to be reserved to such times.’ You don’t mind the times. You tell a man, ‘I am sorry you had such bad weather the last day of your journey, and were so much wet.’ You don’t care sixpence whether he is wet or dry. You may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in society: but don’t think foolishly.”

  5. An excellent quote, well worth passing on! I must get around to reading Boswell one of these years…

  6. Kate Bunting says
  7. PlasticPaddy says

    Can you change above KB link from https to http if it does not work for you either?

  8. Works for me.

  9. PlasticPaddy says

    Works for me now as well…

  10. Kenneth Williams and his gay cronies often communicated in Polari, a combination of Romany, English, Cockney rhyming slang and others. I think Polari is out of fashion now.

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