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...
Gapeseed Wonderful stories; anything that will cause people to stop, look, listen.
Goaways Railroad trains
Grassville The country
Morning drop Hanging
Mushroom faker Umbrella vendor.
Neckweed Hemp (from its use by hangmen).
Rag liquor Any alcohol (from its ability to reduce one to rags)

And some are rather odd...
To frog and toe To go to New York (as in "Let's frog and toe it").
Richardsnary Dictionary.

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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2001 TIERE
Last Updated 12/16/01 05:25 PM