last update: 25 February 2021
This is a special section devoted Cant. Other section might include cant, but this webpage only looks at early canting expressions. They may not longer exist today, but are wonderfully symbolic of the past of the English language (and dare I say culture).
Take the expression "abram cove". I think most people with the English as a mother tongue will understand a "cove" as meaning some type of person. The consensus is that "cove" dates from the 1560's and means a thing or a man (from the Romany covo for "that man"). In canting it could mean a fellow but equally also a rogue.
But "abram" is often mention as cant for naked, but it could also have meant an ill-tempered man. It looks to have come from patients temporarily discharged for the purpose of begging, from the Abraham ward of a London psychiatric hospital called Bethlem Royal Hospital (known as Bedlam). This definition was first mentioned in 1561. So the presumptions was that they were mentally ill beggars. Or, as the expression "Abraham work" might suggest, someone pretending to be mentally ill to obtain alms, i.e. evoking sympathy to obtain money. It was known at the time that the beggars would cover themselves in ribbons, tape, foxtails and tags to present madness, as they tried to rob their targets. The expression "sham Abraham" was also used for sailors pretending to be ill (similar to beggars pretending to be mentally ill). So "abram" could also mean insane or naked, and "abram cove" would mean a half naked beggar trading on his appearance and feigning madness to get money.
What I want to do on this webpage is build a picture of a few common characters of 16th century England, through the language of cant. And just maybe you may detect the seeds of a good "Canterbury Story", or long roundabout tale in the form of a "Carry Witchet" or puzzlewit.
Our man started life as a "Figger", a little boy put in at a window to hand out goods to the "Diver". But he grew too big, too fast, and rapidly became an adept "Angler", a petty thief who used a stick and hook to pluck things from windows, etc. (a "Filcher" or robber). He was born "bandy-legg'd" (crooked), but he had quickly learned how to "save his Bacon", and had escaped several times with his "whole skin". As a youth he had become deft with a "Betty and Glym", a small Engine to force open the Doors of Houses and a dark lantern. Even he had had a short career as a "Budge" (someone who slips into Houses in the Dark to taketh what come to Hand). Later in life he would work hard to learn the "Black Art" (lock picking), so to be a "Milken" (housebreaker) and "Dubber" (a Picker of "Jokes", i.e. Locks), and "Mill the Gig with a Dub" (open a Door with a Pick-lock-key) which gave himself more time to "Fleece" (rob) "Lurries" (Money, Watches, Rings, etc.). He would not hesitate to "Tuck the owners in Bed" (knock unconscious) and "Dress them up" (tie up), because it made for the easy life. He had never felt the "barnadeles" on him (the Irons Fellons wear in Goal), or worse still suffered the "Chates" (Gallows). Over time he had become a "batter'd-bully", an "Old Dog", well cudgell'd and bruised huffing Fellow, but expert in his Trade. A "Bite" (Rogue) he was, and he had "broken his Boltsprit" (Nose) many a time. But now his preferred business was "Sharping Clear Culls" (stealing from the very Drunk). He had never learned to be a "Diver" and "Filed a cly" (Pick a Pocket), but he was a "Dab hand" (well vers'd) in finding other ways to "Strike a mans' Cly" (get the Money from him). He had been and would always be looking for ways to "Cloy the Lour" or "bit the Cole" (steal money from someone) in any way he could, in this he was the true "Cloyers cloy" (Rogues rogue). Everyone knew that it was best not to ask if he had "Crashed a Cull" (killed a Fellow), for fear of getting an honest answer.
Our man once frequented the "Academy", just as a learned man might attend university. But naturally for our rogue the "Academy" means the "Bawdy-house", where he was a real "beard splitter" (an enjoyer of Women). But late in life he had fallen "Arsy Yarsey" (Head over Heels) and picked up "baggage" (a whore), a fine "Article" (a handsome wench), and she had given birth to a "Banging Bantling" (fine boy). It is true she was a "Buttock" (whore), but what a "Dim-mort" (a pretty Wench). And she was no simple "sham file" (pickpocket), but she was a "White Ewe", a top Woman among the Canting Crew. With her looks she never lacked for "Bit" (money) because she could "Wheedle so Bienly" (flatter so cleverly). With a child in his life, he had toned down his "Bear-garden-discourse" (common, fifth, nasty talk), and his only true hope in life was that his son would not be a "Chip of the old Block" (a child resembling the father), or brought up in the same Trade. Increasingly he relied on his "Comfortable Importance" (wife) to tell him what to do, not "Henpecked", but he knew his place. But will they be drawn into the intrigues of our "Man of Assurance"? And in the End, who will be holding whom by the "Whirlegigs" (Testicles)?
Our lady is always "well accoutred". This expression was once reserved for the trappings of horses, but now suggests that she is always genteelly dressed. She is a "belle", a nice, gay, fluttering foolish Woman that follows every Fashion, but just a little too quick to "Flash the Ivories" (laugh and show her teeth). Women such as her are often said to have a "Cambridge-Fortune", or be a Woman without any Substance (but her "personal endowments"). Still, she always "Looked Merry about the Gills" (appear cheerful).
But who was her benefactor? Was it true that she had "Set her Cap" at our "Assuming Fellow", despite his evident defects? Would she be his motivation to commit some wrong? But was she also part of the "Slippery Trick" (deceitful, smooth and slippery) masterminded by our "Man of Assurance"?
Here we have a person who is full of "whimsies" and projects, but is empty of "Wit" (a true "bottle-head"). People just see him as a mere "animal", a very silly Fellow, a "babler" (a great Talker), but full of "Banbury-stories" (silly chat, or "Cock and a Bull"). What people of the time would call a "Block" or silly Fellow, or "Bird-witted" (not Solid), but more often than not a simple "Ben" or a "Cod's Head", or a "Coxcomb", a "Nickum-poop", a true fool. It was said that he had once been a "Caper Merchant", a dancing master. His most marked feature was his "Carrotty-Pater", almost red-ginger hair, that was so strong that it looked almost fake.
Everyone saw that he was just a "Cap Acquaintance" with both the "Assuming Fellow" and our "Man of Assurance", just enough to salute them with his "Castor" (hat) on meeting. But perhaps our Man was really a "Rum-mawn'd", or one that Counterfeits himself a Fool, so as to befriend our "Assuming Fellow", son of a rich industrialist. Or was he looking to befriend our "Man of Assurance", or was there even more to this fool than met the eye? Or, just maybe he was nothing more than a "Cat's Paw", a tool to accomplish the purpose of another.
An "Airy Fellow"
Light, brusk, and pleasant, he is an "Airy Fellow", but also a true "beau", a silly Fellow that follows the Fashions nicely, even Powdering his neck and shoulders. But one who would "Bleed freely", part with their Money easily. He is the perfect example of a "Bolter of White Friers", or someone who Peeps out, but dares not venture abroad, and is always ready to dart back into his Hole. The only thing anyone remembered about him was his "Bowsprit" (Nose) that would do proud a Galleon.
Is this "Airy Fellow" really a "Dandy Prat" (insignificant or trifling Fellow), or is he a "Bully Trap", a brave man of mild appearance? Does he occasionally let drop a slight accent from the "Chamber-pot of the Planets" (Ireland)? Is he part of the plot, and do we detect a touch of the "Tally-man" in his fashionable attire (a "Tally-man" lets out Cloths at moderate rates by the week or month)?
A "Man of Assurance"
A man who is full of confidence, someone who enjoyed acting the "bay-window", standing out from the crowd, but still a "Dapper-fellow" (brisk, tidy) and a "Man of Character" (a man of Mark or Note, possibly "Incog" or incognito) But he is a true "Brother of the Blade" (Soldier), and will "buckle to no Man", won't Yield or Stoop to any Man. The cognoscenti guessed that he was no simple "Blade". He was of a "Cloudy" complexion, suggesting that he had spent some years abroad, and that made him look a "Crusty Fellow" (surly). Perhaps a "Nabob", retuned from the East Indies, so someone who could live in "Clover" (relative luxury). But he was certainly "an Oak" (a rich Man) and "Well equipt" ("plump in the Pocket" and very well drest). A true "Tercel-gentle", a Gentleman of a good Estate. Some said that his name was on the "Civil List", as an Officer who served the King's family. Others said he was a "A Creature of Fortune", living by his Wits, or as the Spanish would say "Heir of his own Right-hand". Everyone knew he would be "Clever", but at what? For sure he was no "Fresh-water-seaman" (someone who had never been on the Salt). And if you looked carefully you could spot that our "Man of Assurance" carried at all times a "Camp Candlestick" (soldier's bayonet) hidden upon his person. Everyone saw that he was "Cadge-Pawed", left-handed, yet everyone just knew that he would certainly not be "Caw-Handed" (lacking in dexterity) in using "Cold Iron" (a sword). What people did not know and could not see, was that he was "Clouted Shoon", or wore shoes tipped with iron, and had a "Crispin's Lance" (an awl) in his pocket. This was a dangerous man who could "Dress the Hide" of anyone (beat them soundly).
Se we have a "Gallant", or Man of Metal, and a "Bang Up Cove" (a dashing fellow who spends his money freely), but he still knew the value of a "Flymsey" (bank note). He was often seen sitting alone, drinking his "Twist" (half tea, half coffee), and "Raising a Cloud" (smoking his "Blower" or pipe), but no Man had ever seen him raise a glass of alcohol to his lips. A "Cove" (man) such as he was seldom seen without their "Cronies and Palls", so where was his clan of intimates? He was certainly a "Deep-One" (a sly designing Fellow), but was he the "Cock", the leading Man?
He could have taken "Hacks or Hackneys" (hirelings) but he preferred to set a trap for a skilled "Ken-miller" (housebreaker), for what he planned he needed someone with the "Knack" and the "Lore" (the Art or Mystery of the Trade). For our Man was in truth a "Rum cove" (great Rogue) intent is exploiting a "Rum-cul" (rich Fool) that could be easily "Bit" (Cheated), i.e. our "Assuming Fellow". And for that he needed to first find a "Rum-dubber" (expert Picker of Locks), and them to "Spring a Partridge" (draw in our "Assuming Fellow" to be "Bit"). Is he a "Thief-taker", who makes a Trade of helping People (for a gratuity)? But was he the true "Tat-monger" (throwing the "Dispatchers", the loaded "Bones" or dice), or was he just the "Elbow Shaker" (rattling the dice)? Was the real "Dimber Damber" (top man) hiding in the shadows?
Cribbage-faced or Frosty Face - marked by the small pox.
Gooseberry-eyed - dull grey eyes
A "Black-box" (Lawyer) that takes Fees of Plaintiff and Defendant at once, a true "Bilk" (cheat), a "Man of no Bottom", of no Basis of Principles or Ground in his Art. He "Talks like an Apothecary" (talks with gravity but has superficial learning).
He was known to have used "Crumps", people who would put on good Cloaths to make a good appearance, and swear for any Body (and for money), so that Bail may be accepted in Court. It hath been said that on occasion he even employed "Knights of the Post" to provide false witness in Westminster Hall.
This was not to say that he was not a "Deft Fellow" (tidy, neat little Man), even if a bit of a "Norfolk Dumplin" (short and a bit stout). Everyone, but his wife, knew he was a "Dark Cully", and visited his mistress only at night. But when he "Chouse to "Fob off" (or slyly cheat or deceive) in the affair of the "Bristol-stones" (Sham Diamonds) he …
A very homely woman, and a true "antidote" to the troubles of the outside world. One of the "Folks" (ordinary people), and someone whom you almost never would see without her "belly-cheat" (apron).
"Florentine" (a Dish of Minced Meats, Curran, Spice, Eggs and Bak'd)
"Card-Wool" cleanse and prepare wool for Spinning
"A good Char well Char'd" (a Work well over)
"Gossiping", much Idle Prating, and Tittle Tattle
"Rum Lap" excellent pottage
"Chatter Box" one whose tongue ran twelve score to the dozen
"Stopped his Jaw" left him speechless
The "Assuming Fellow"
He abounds in his own Sense, and tries to imposes it upon every Man else, a "meer Bounce" (a Swaggering Fellow). He was so "Damnable dip" (deep in debt), that all he was "All-a-Gog" to see his "old Man backt", i.e. eager to see his Father "upon six Mens shoulders", and all "Tucked up with a Spade" (buried). He has "Struck every Body", or borrowed Money everywhere, he "Runs in everyone's Debt", and spends all his time "Manoeuvring the Apostles" (borrowing from one to pay another).
In appearance he was more than just "Chuffy" (plump), but was "Bloated", so puffed up with false Fat, and had not a Healthy Complexion (a true "Carbuncle-Face", red and full of large Pimples). He tended to dress gaudy, and you could always tell he was coming because as he waddled along you first heard him "chinking" his coins in his pocket. And you could tell when he had left, because he always dumped a "Cheeser", a strong smelling fart. Lucky for everyone that he was troubled with a "Looseness".
Given his problem with money, it was not surprising that he was known for his "Largess" (giving a Pittance or small Gratuity). Everyone knew that there was no point in trying to "Cadge the Swell" (beg of the Gentleman).
In character, he was a true "Boerish …" (Rude, Unmannerly, Clownish), who with a few glasses of "Bub" (drink) could easily become a "Boisterous Fellow" (Blustering, Rude, Rough). But when the chips were down, he was nothing more than a "Captain-sharp", a Sneaking, "Dastard" (Cowardly) Bully, and a "Churl", or selfish, sordid Clown.
So, as they say, our "Assuming Fellow" is a perfect example of the "Gentleman of Three Outs", out of money, without wit, and without manners, and some would add, without credit.
At the heart of the story is that when "Top Heavy" (drunk) this "Cull was Leaky, and Cackled" (blabbed and told all his secrets). He was right for the "Doing" (to be cheated), but will our "Man of Assurance" be able to "Strip this Cull" (get all the Fool's Money)? What Money you may ask, if he is so "Damnable dip" (deep in debt)? Or is the game aimed at the real "Fat Cull", his rich daddy?
The local "Fool Finder" (Bayliff), and his very fierce Mastiff, a true "battle-head", a heavy dull Block-head. A true "Bracket-face" (ugly, Illfavor'd), and a great "Bingo boy" (lover of Brandy) and drinker of poor quality "Bristol-milk" (Sherry). Because he's was a "Swill-belly" (great Drinker) and even "loved to Suck his Face" (delighted in Drinking), everyone hoped that sooner than later he would die of "Barrel Fever" (drinking).
He was known for his willingness to "Bug the Writ", taking money of the Defendant not to Arrest them. He is a Man of few words, and every word came from his "Billingsgate Dialect" (ill Language, abuse and foul Words).
Pennyweighter - replace valuables with worthless ones
Chunk o'Gin - Diamonds
Yellow Tin - gold
Fancy Booze - Jewellery
Bene Cove - A good fellow
Tuck in Bed - knock unconscious
Dress up - tie up
Pigeon Plucher - con man
Milch cow - fool
Cackle - Gossip
Bona fides - goodstanding reputation
Dial Plate (face)
"Dingey Christian" - mulatto - lick of the tar-brush
Catch Fart - footboy
Fart Catcher - Valet
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devilish bad, devilish good; devilish sick, devilish well;
devilish sweet, devilish sour; devilish hot, devilish cold,
GULL. A simple credulous fellow, easily cheated
GUTS AND GARBAGE. A very fat man or woman. More
guts than brains; a silly fellow.
GUZZLE. Liquor. To guzzle; to drink greedily.
HOP MERCHANT. A dancing master. See CAPER MERCHANT.
JACK TAR. A sailor.