Issue 143, page 1
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We've been reading a curious little book on cant recently. Just in case you're imagining a series of volumes entitled "shant", "wont", etc., we should explain that cant is the name given to criminals' slang. The book was written in 1859 by one George Matsell, a former police chief of New York City and, presumably, something of an authority. Chief Matsell, with a prolixity characteristic of that era, titled this little gem The Secret Language of Crime: Vocabulum or The Rogue's Lexicon, containing as well a glossary of terms used by Gamblers, Billiard Players, Stock Brokers and Pugilists.
Dipping into this work we were struck that terms such as birthday suit, booze, to brag, to book (meaning "to arrest"), maudlin, a put-up job, patter (meaning "talk") and to squeal (meaning "to inform") were considered obscure enough to require an explanation. Even more astonishing is that crib meant "house" in ante-bellum New York just as it does in the 21st century.
Chief Matsell labored to explain that noblers are "confederates of thimble-riggers, who appear to play, to induce the flats to try their luck with the "little joker". Nowadays we would simply translate noblers as "shills".
Some of the cant verges upon poetry...
And some are rather odd...
We'll have more on the subject of "flash patter" in a later issue.
Why not put this book in someone's stocking this Christmas?
Or just browse in our bookstore.
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