Cant (language)

Cant (language)

A Cant (or crypolect) is the jargon or argot of a group, often implying its use to exclude or mislead people outside the group.[1]



There are two main schools of thought on the origin of the word cant.

Derivation in Celtic linguistics

In Celtic linguistics, the derivation is normally seen to be from the Scottish Gaelic chainnt or Irish word caint (older spelling cainnt) "speech, talk".[2] In this sense it is seen to have derived amongst the itinerant groups of people in Scotland and Ireland, hailing from both Irish/Scottish Gaelic and English speaking backgrounds ultimately leading to a creole language.[2]

The most widely known form is "the Cant", known to its native speakers in Ireland as Gammon and to the linguistic community as Shelta.[2]

In the Scottish context, it has given rise to the terms Scottish Cant (a variant of Scots with Romani and Scottish Gaelic influences) and the Highland Traveller's Cant (or Beurla Reagaird), a Gaelic-based cant.[2]

Derivation outside Celtic linguistics

Outside Goidelic circles, the derivation is normally seen to be from Latin cantāre "to sing" via Norman French canter.[1][3]

Within this derivation, the history of the word is seen to originally have referred to the chanting of friars in a disparaging way some time between the 12th[3] and 15th century,[1] then the singsong of beggars and eventually a criminal jargon.


The Thieves' Cant was a feature of popular pamphlets and plays particularly between 1590 and 1615, but continued to feature in literature through the 18th century. There are questions about how genuinely the literature reflected vernacular use in the criminal underworld. A thief in 1839 claimed that the cant he had seen in print was nothing like the cant then used by gypsies, thieves and beggars. He also said that each of these used distinct vocabularies, which overlapped, the gypsies having a cant word for everything, and the beggars using a lower style than the thieves.[4]

In June 2009 it was reported that inmates in one English prison were using "Elizabethan Cant" as a means of communication that guards would not understand, although the words used are not part of the canon of recognised cant.[5]

The word has also been used as a suffix to coin names for modern day jargons such as medicant, a term used to refer to the type of language employed by members of the medical profession that is largely unintelligible to lay people.[1]

Examples of cants

See also


  1. ^ a b c d McArthur, T. (ed.) The Oxford Companion to the English Language (1992) Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-214183-X
  2. ^ a b c d Kirk, J. & Ó Baoill, D. Travellers and their Language (2002) Queen's University Belfast ISBN 0-85389-832-4
  3. ^ a b Collins English Dictionary 21st Century Edition (2001) HarperCollins ISBN 0-00-472529-8
  4. ^ Ribton-Turner, C. J. 1887 Vagrants and Vagrancy and Beggars and Begging, London, 1887, p.245, quoting an examination taken at Salford Gaol
  5. ^ "Convicts use ye olde Elizabethan slang to smuggle drugs past guards into prison". Daily Mail. 2009-06-08. Retrieved 2009-06-25. 
  6. ^ Partridge, Eric (1937) Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English

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  • Cant — or canting may refer to:*Empty, hypocritical talk See [ wiktionary article] *Cant (language), a secret language **Thieves cant **Shelta language or the Cant, a language used by the Irish Travellers *Cant… …   Wikipedia

  • Language game — A language game (also called secret language or ludling) is a system of manipulating spoken words to render them incomprehensible to the untrained ear. Language games are used primarily by groups attempting to conceal their conversations from… …   Wikipedia

  • Cant — Cant, v. i. 1. To speak in a whining voice, or an affected, singsong tone. [1913 Webster] 2. To make whining pretensions to goodness; to talk with an affectation of religion, philanthropy, etc.; to practice hypocrisy; as, a canting fanatic. [1913 …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Cant — Cant, n. [Prob. from OF. cant, F. chant, singing, in allusion to the singing or whining tine of voice used by beggars, fr. L. cantus. See {Chant}.] 1. An affected, singsong mode of speaking. [1913 Webster] 2. The idioms and peculiarities of… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • cant — now usually means ‘insincere pious or moral talk’: • shameful surrender to the prevalent cant and humbug of the age Daily Telegraph, 1992. Its older (18c–19c) and often derogatory meaning, ‘the secret language or jargon used by certain classes or …   Modern English usage

  • Cant — Cant, a. Of the nature of cant; affected; vulgar. [1913 Webster] To introduce and multiply cant words in the most ruinous corruption in any language. Swift. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • cant — Ⅰ. cant [1] ► NOUN 1) hypocritical and sanctimonious talk. 2) derogatory language peculiar to a specified group. 3) (before another noun ) denoting a phrase or catchword temporarily current: a cant word. ► VERB dated ▪ talk hypocritically and… …   English terms dictionary

  • cant — [n1] hypocritical statement affected piety, deceit, dishonesty, humbug, hypocrisy, hypocriticalness, insincerity, lip service*, pecksniffery, pharisaicalness, pious platitudes, pomposity, pretense, pretentiousness, sanctimoniousness, sanctimony,… …   New thesaurus

  • language — 1 Language, dialect, tongue, speech, idiom are comparable when they denote a body or system of words and phrases used by a large community (as of a region) or by a people, a nation, or a group of nations. Language may be used as a general term… …   New Dictionary of Synonyms

  • cant — n 1 jargon, argot, *dialect, lingo, vernacular, slang, patois Analogous words: phraseology, vocabulary, diction, *language: idiom, speech (see LANGUAGE 2) *hypocrisy, sanctimony, pharisaism …   New Dictionary of Synonyms

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