Cant (language)

A cant (or cryptolect) is the jargon or argot of a group, often employed 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 cainnt 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 developing as various creole languages.[2] However, the various types of cant (Scottish/Irish) are mutually unintelligible to each other.

The Irish creol variant is simply termed "the Cant." Its speakers from the Irish Traveller community know it as Gammon, and the linguistic community identifies it as Shelta.[2]

In Scotland there are two unrelated creol languages termed as "cant". Scottish Cant (a variant of Scots, Romani and Scottish Gaelic influences) is spoken by Lowland Gypsy groups. Highland Traveller's Cant (or Beurla Reagaird) is a Gaelic-based cant of the Indigenous Highland Traveller population.[2] Both cants are mutually unintelligible with each other.

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, used in a disparaging way some time between the 12th[3] and 15th centuries.[1] Gradually the term was applied to 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]


See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 McArthur, T. (ed.) The Oxford Companion to the English Language (1992) Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-214183-X
  2. 1 2 3 4 Kirk, J. & Ó Baoill, D. Travellers and their Language (2002) Queen's University Belfast ISBN 0-85389-832-4
  3. 1 2 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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