Tag Archives: cant

Resources: Canting Dictionaries

To round off this series of posts on canting language, here are links to those pre-Victorian cant, slang and jargon vocabularies freely available on the internet. More are to be found in various subscription archives; these are not listed here both because they are not open to the general public, and because it is important to show that there are alternatives. The digital vaults should not be the first resort, as much for ethical as economic reasons.

The difficulty with using Archive.org and Google Books, from whence much of the material below can be obtained, is that the metadata, being generated by machine, is generally patchy and frequently erroneous. This makes it all the more important that what the historian does in the course of writing history – compile reference material – is made public, for all to benefit from, as well as allowing the story to be checked.

Three other resources of note are: Pascal Bonenfant’s database of cant, drawn from three dictionaries dating from 1737, 1811 and 1819; LEME, the Lexicons of Early Modern English, is an ingenious resource, although partly behind a paywall so of limited use to non-subscribers; and finally, I have started a list of canting dictionaries through the facilities provided by the Open Library.

Finally, throughout this series of posts, I have drawn on the first volume of Julie Coleman’s excellent History of Cant and Slang Dictionaries.

Thomas Harman, A caveat or warning for common cursetors, vulgarly called vagabonds, (1567). The first of the glossaries, compiled through interrogating suspected rogues. A reprint from 1814 is available from Archive.org. Open Library.

Samuel Rowland, Martin Mark-all Beadle of Bridewell, (1610). In Volume 2 of his collected works. Open Library.

Thomas Shadwell, Glossary to The Squire of Alsatia, (1688). Subject of my previous post.

B.E., Gent., A new dictionary of the terms ancient and modern of the canting crew, in its several tribes, of gypsies, beggers, thieves, cheats, &c. with an addition of some proverbs, phrases, figurative speeches, &c. First published in 1698, the Internet Archive has a scan of an 1899 reprint. Open Library.

Nathan Bailey, Canting Dictionary, (1736), extracted from Bailey, The New Universal Etymological Dictionary, (1727). Transcribed at From Old Books; the fifth edition of the  full dictionary is available via Google.

Bampfylde-Moore Carew, The life and adventures of Bampfylde-Moore Carew. Picaresque account of the ‘King of the Beggars’, the edition of 1750 contained a canting glossary. Archive.org. Open Library.

Francis Grose, Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, first published 1785 and frequently reprinted and re-edited. Transcribed at From Old Books and also available at Gutenberg and  Archive.org. Open Library

Shadwell’s Glossary

As the online version is missing it, I present here the glossary that accompanied Shadwell’s The Squire Of Alsatia, comprising the cant terms used in that play. Taken from the 1688 text, and checked against the critical edition by J.C. Ross. In the public domain by reason of its age.

An Explanation of the Cant.

Alsatia. White-fryers.
Prig, Prigster. Pert Coxcombs.
Bubble, Caravan. The Cheated.
Sealer. One that gives Bonds and Judgments for Goods and Money.
A Putt. One who is easily wheadled and cheated.
Coale, Ready, Rhino, Darby. Ready money.
Rhinocerical. Full of money.
Megs. Guineas.
Smelts. Half-Guineas.
Decus. A Crown piece.
George. A Half-Crown.
Hog. Shilling.
Sice. Six-pence.
Scout. A Watch.
Tattler. An Alarm, or Striking Watch.
Famble. A Ring.
Porker, Tilter. A Sword.
A Rumm Nab. A good Beaver.
Rigging. Cloathes.
Blowing, Natural, Convenient, Tackle, Buttock, Pure, Purest pure. Several Names for a Mistress, or rather a Whore.
To Equip. To furnish one.
A Bolter of White-fryers. One that does but peep out of White-fryers, and retire again like a Rabbit out of his hole.
To lugg cut. To draw a Sword.
To Scamper, to rubb, to scowre. To run away.
Bowsy. Drunk.
Clear. Very Drunk.
Smoaky. Jealous.
Sharp. Subtle.
A Sharper. A Cheat.
A Tattmonger. A Cheat at Dice.
Tatts. False Dice.
The Doctor. A particular false Die, which will run but two or three Chances.
Prog. Meat.

The Language of Alsatia: earliest uses

When was the word ‘Alsatia’ first applied to Whitefriars? Cunningham’s Handbook of London (1850) states:

“ALSATIA. A cant name given before 1623 to the precinct of Whitefriars, then and long after a notorious place of refuge and retirement for persons wishing to avoid bailiffs and creditors. The earliest use of the name is contained in a quarto tract by Thomas Powel, printed in 1623, and called “Wheresoever you see mee, trust unto Yourselfe, or the Mysterie of Lending and Borrowing.” The second in point of time is in Otway’s play of The Soldier’s Fortune, (4to, 1681), and the third in Shadwell’s celebrated Squire of Alsatia (4to, 1688) ….”

Today, due to mass digitization, accurate searching, and hopefully accurate transcription as well, we can say that the first use in print was in 1676 – August 29th, according to the license declared on the cover – in a satirical tract ‘The Character of an Honest Lawyer‘, signed by one ‘H.C.’ According to this, such a paradigm of rectitude never

maintains any correspondence with the Knights of Alsatia, or Ram-ally-Vouchers ….

A brief mention, coupled with ‘Knight’ rather than the squire more common later, and with ‘Ram Alley vouchers.’ Ram Alley was a sanctuary in the precincts of the Temple, abolished along with Alsatia by the act of 1697; a ‘voucher’ was a witness-for-hire.

Before continuing with the chronology of the term, it’s worth considering where and when it wasn’t used. Powell’s 1623 guide to London’s sanctuaries, contrary to Cunningham, did not use it, and Whitefriars is mentioned only obliquely. Similarly, Brome’s play A Mad Couple Well-Match’d, dating from before the civil war but first published in 1653, has the lines:

I need no more insconsing now in Ram-alley,
nor the Sanctuary of White-fryers , the Forts of Fullers-rents,
and Milford-lane, whose walls are dayly batter’d
with the curses of bawling creditors. My debts are payd;
and here’s a stock remayning of Gold, pure Gold harke
how sweetly it chincks.

There’s a clear opportunity to use the term Alsatia here, especially given the explicit mention of Whitefriars. That it is not used implies that it hadn’t yet been coined. Furthermore, its absence implies that Whitefriars hadn’t become the epitome of sanctuary. From the literary evidence, that was not to come until the 1670s, after the Civil War, Plague and Great Fire of London.

The next use of Alsatia in its sense of refuge is a few months after ‘H.C.’, in the prologue to Settle’s play Pastor Fido, licensed December 26th 1676. Although used in passing, it is  the first appearance of the squire:

Another keeps a Miss the modish way;
And when poor Duns, quite weary, will not stay,
The hopeless Squire’s into Alsatia driven;
Yet pretty Charming Sinner is forgiven.

Around this time, there’s a crop of passing mentions. Aphra Behn – once a debtor herself – refers to ‘New Alsatia’ in The Debauchee (1677), her adaptation of Brome’s play. Rawlins has a character as ‘foul mouth’d as a decayed sinner in the lower Alsatia’ (Tunbridge Wells, 1678); Otway’s The Cheats of Scapin (1677) and L’Estrange’s Citt and Bumpkin (1680) also make brief use of it.

It’s not until Otway’s The Soldiers Fortune (1681) that Alsatia and its denizens move out from the wings, with the squire’s portrait being fleshed out:

‘Tis a fine equipage I am like to be reduced
to ; I shall be ere long as greasy as an Alsatian bully ;
this flopping hat, pinned up on one side, with a sandy,
weather-beaten peruke, dirty linen, and, to complete
the figure, a long scandalous iron sword jarring at my

Then in 1686 Alsatia becomes one of the settings of  Aphra Behn’s The Lucky Chance. Bredwel describes the garrett of the debt-ridden aristocrat Gayman, who has sought refuge in Whitefriars:

I was sent up a Ladder rather than a pair of Stairs; at last I scal’d the top, and enter’d the inchanted Castle; there did I find him, spite of the noise below, drowning his Cares in Sleep.

‘Tis a pretty convenient Tub, Madam. He may lie a long in’t, upright, there’s just room for an old join’d Stool besides the Bed, which one cannot call a Cabin, about the largeness of a Pantry Bin, or a Usurer’s Trunk; there had been Dornex Curtains to’t in the days of Yore; but they were now annihilated, and nothing left to save his Eyes from the Light, but my Landlady’s Blue Apron, ty’d by the strings before the Window, in which stood a broken six-penny Looking-Glass, that shew’d as many Faces as the Scene in Henry the Eighth, which could but just stand and then the Comb-Case fill’d it.

Two years later, Shadwell’s The Squire of Alsatia (1688), containing the first glossary to collect the term, made the fullest use of both the place and its Dramatis Personae. But by bringing the sanctuaries to the authorities’ attention, and inveighing strongly against such areas, it may have paved the way to the legislation of 1697 that stripped most of them of the right of refuge. It may therefore have a better claim to be one of the last, not first uses, of the term Alsatia.

Addendum: I’ve just discovered the Historical Thesaurus of English, which erroneously dates Alsatia to 1688. More interestingly, it also cites the personification ‘Alsatian’ to 1691, and places ‘Minter’, after the inhabitants of Southwark Mint, to circa 1700 – 1723.

The Milford Lane Bermudas

The major problem with the historical slang discussed in the previous post is that our main source for it, the canting vocabularies, cannot be taken as proof of what was actually voiced. Not only do contemporary dictionaries dramatically transform the aural into the written, but for these lexicons we cannot be sure that their terms were widely used, or even used at all, or that they had the meaning prescribed to them. Their motives, whether to titillate a reader or inform a magistrate, make them still more opaque, as does their cannibalizing, copying and  reuse, with all the slips and mistakes that introduces.

Consequently, one needs to find examples of use, preferably in material that hasn’t been ‘worked up’ for an audience. Although plays have been a useful source for cant phrases, and although there is a connection between the theatre players and vagabondage, they are at root artistic works intended to be performed publicly, quite contrary to the purposes of argot.

Criminal records, especially depositions and testimony, may be a more fruitful source for the spoken language of the time. For example, the extract below is taken from the Middlesex calendar of the sessions records, 1616:

Francis Bradshawe of St. Clement Danes, gentleman, brought to the Court for abusing John Blanksby and John Cawcatt, constables of the Duchy, when they came with a warrant to apprehend one Captain Stokes for suspicion of murder, by virtue of Mr. Michell’s warrant, “and when they commanded him in the Kinges Matles name to goe with them he would not but in scoffing manner willed them in the Kinges name to goe with him.” Committed for default of sureties and afterwards handed in bail until the next Sessions to Oliver Smith of St. Clement Danes, tailor, and Ralph Garrett of Holborn, gentleman, to be of good behaviour, and to do his best endeavour to apprehend the said Captain Stokes, who escaped by means of the said Francis “out of the Barmoodoes in Milforde Lane”

(source: British History Online)

‘Barmoodoes’, ‘Bermudas’ in modern orthography*, was defined by Grose as “A cant name for certain places in London, privileged against arrests.” The modern lexiographer of slang Eric Partridge considers it to mean a specific area, around Drury Lane. Willey, in Brewer’s Dictionary of London Phrase and Fable (2009), combines both definitions, calling it “the name for certain no-go areas where criminals hid themselves away and the authorities were not inclined to pursue them. It was applied in particular to the lanes and passageways running near Drury Lane, and to parts of Southwark.” (p.40)**

But here it is used to refer to Milford Lane, running south from the Strand to the Thames, as can be seen from the map below.

Milford Lane in the 17th century

Milford Lane in the 17th century

Milford Lane wasn’t a sanctuary in the sense that it had any particular rights attached to it, as Whitefriars or Southwark Mint had. According to Thomas Powell‘s 1623 guide to the sanctuaries of London, it was held more or less by force of arms:

THe next is Milford lane, to which certaine Captaines and their companies being long since cashiered, betooke themselues, and liking the situation of it, did there erect diuers workes, both to the land-side and the water for their ensafing.

As they came in by conquest, so they hold it by the sword; and howsoeuer their title hath beene much disputed heretofore, yet they haue now commuted the matter, proued plantation, pretended the first discouery: and withall haue reduced it to a most absolute Hanse and free towne of it selfe without dependency.

Ben Jonson, who appears to have been the first to use Bermudas in this sense, in print at least, may well have been referring to Milford Lane in his poem Underwoods (published 1640), implying that the inhabitants were debtors turned pirates:

But these Men ever want: their very Trade
Is borrowing; that but stopt, they do invade
All as their Prize, turn Pyrates here at Land,
Ha’ their Bermudas, and their Streights i’ th’ Strand

So perhaps there was another resonance to the term Bermudas, as a haunt for pirates. Note that it was a Captain that was being pursued in the testimony above!

* A use of this spelling to mean the Bermudas proper, can be found in Horne’s 1666 Brief Description of the Province of Carolina.

** Interestingly, the Brewer’s Dictionary of 1894 gives a different meaning, although still referencing the alleys around Drury Lane and Covent Garden:

To live in the Bermudas, i.e. in some out-of-the-way place for cheapness. The shabby genteel hire a knocker in some West-end square, where letters may be left for them, but live in the Bermudas, or narrow passages north of the Strand, near Covent Garden.

See also the undated edition at archive.org combining the cheapness motif with that of sanctuary.

The Language of Alsatia: Cant, Analogy and Toponyms

‘Alsatia’ was not only a name for Whitefriars and a generic term for places outside the law, but also an example of a linguistic practice of ‘toponymic analogy’: bestowing a foreign place name upon a local area on the basis of presumed similarities. There are a significant number of examples of  this in the ‘Rogues’ cant’ of the early modern period, the slang probably spoken by the inhabitants of the such spaces, and the poorer sort in London generally.

I say ‘probably’, because our sources for this spoken language are invariably printed, meaning that what we know of it is mediated. Most lexicons of ‘the vulgar tongue’ such as that by Grose, were written by and for those who did not speak it. That such dictionaries frequently, and inaccurately, copied each other further confuses the issue. Those compiled by those involved in the justice system, whether J.P.s or criminals, may be more reliable. The literary evidence may be also be closer to the source. The vagabondage of travelling players and the number of authors prosecuted for debt connects the daily use and the artistic performance of cant. Whitefriars, and its near neighbour the liberty of Blackfriars, hosted some of London’s first theatres. But still, we cannot be sure what was poetic invention.

How much was this language used? A quick search shows that neither ‘ragamuffin‘ nor ‘Alsatia’ can be found in the materials hosted by either the Old Bailey Online or English Broadsides Ballads websites. ‘Punk‘ is used once in its slang sense in OBO (the other two uses are to refer to firewood and a surname), but is used in eleven ballads. Much more research is needed in this area.

The dictionaries reveal  a concern that language could be dangerous, especially when spoken by the dangerous classes. One of the earliest, A Caveat or Warning for Common Cursetors (1567) by sometime Whitefriars resident Thomas Harman, had as its explicit purpose the exposure of roguery, so that the “indecent doleful dealing and execrable exercises may appear to all as it were in a glass, that thereby the Justices and Sheriffs may in their circuits, be more vigilant to punish these malefactors[.]” By translating their language, their plots and schemes are revealed. This connecting of disorder with language was an important theme in the early modern period. John Locke devoted two chapters of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding to the imperfections and abuses of words, and another to remedying them. Abused words were a concern of Locke’s in the monetary debates of the 1690s, a matter that very much concerned debtors and creditors, stating that money was “thought to be a great Mystery” but only because “interested people …. wrap up the secret they make advantage of in mystical, obscure and unintelligible ways of Talking[.]” (Some Considerations) In the early eighteenth century, Jonathan Swift railed against ‘playhouse and Alsatia cant‘, making a clear connection between roguery and the theatre, as a corruption of both language and christianity. (See also Tale of a Tub.)

This language was as disordered and outside social norms as the sanctuaries and their inhabitants. The practice of renaming one place after another can be seen as a particular canting practice, that by confusing different places and drawing sardonic parallels embodies roguery. Toponymic analogy generally renamed dangerous localities with overseas names, generally one that was exotic, distant and with perilous resonances. For example, Wapping, site of the last, and shortest-lasting, sanctuary, was known as ‘Little Barbary.’ On the other side of the Thames, South London – specifically Lambeth, Southwark and Rotherhithe – was known as the ‘Turkish Shore.’ An exception to this is Newcastle, nicknamed the ‘Black Indies’ after the “rich coal mines prove an Indies to the proprietors”, according to Grose. Fortune-making replaces insecurity, but perhaps a sense of hazard lurks behind it.

For Whitefriars, the Alsace region was a suitable parallel in three ways. It was contested, first by the French and the Habsburgs then later between the French and Germans; ravaged during the Thirty Years War; and to some extent autonomous due to the tortuous treaties negotiated around it and the independence of some of its towns. ‘Alsatia the Lower‘ was also used to refer to Southwark Mint.

Other parts of London were similarly renamed. The area around St Martins In The Fields and Chandos Street was known as the Carribees from, says Thornbury, its “countless straits and intricate thieves’ passages.” Grose has this as the origin of ‘Cribbys‘:

Blind alleys, courts, or bye-ways; perhaps from the houses built there being cribbed out of the common way or passage; and islands, from the similarity of sound to the Caribbee Islands.

Similarly, ‘The Bermudas’ was used for the area around Drury Lane to signify difficult navigation, and perhaps also to it being a place of refuge for debtors, just as the actual Islands were a destination for them. Grose claims it was used indiscriminately of all sanctuaries, but Partridge disagrees. Ben Jonson refers to them twice, in Bartholomew Fair as ‘where the quarrelling lesson is read’, and The Devil is an Ass:

But, these same Citizens, they are such sharks!
There’s an old Debt of forty, I ga’ my word
For one is run away, to the Bermudas,
And he will hook in that, or he wi’ not do.

Newgate prison had a cell reserved for debtors called Tangier, perhaps drawing a sardonic parallel with the pirates of the barbary coast, on account of their holding captives for ransom, just as debtors were held until they could pay their debts, or referring to the unwholesome air and general poor hygiene. The inmates were nicknamed Tangerines. There may also have been a Tangiers Tavern nearby, where the famed and dashing highwayman Claude Duval lay in state after his execution; but all the references I have found to it have been in connection with this moment, so it may be an oft-repeated embellishment.

This type of renaming is also found outside London, though the only examples I have found date to the nineteenth century. In Wolverhampton there was an area inhabited by Irish migrants and worked by prostitutes known as The Caribees. In Merthyr Tydfil (all roads lead to Merthyr) there was a notoriously lawless district called ‘China‘, possibly named so at the time of the first opium war.

This practice goes on today: Anna Minton reports that a poverty-stricken area of Edinburgh is known as ‘Bosnia.’ (Minton, Ground Control, p.111.)