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Cant is an example of an argot or cryptolect, a characteristic or secret language used only by members of a group, often used to conceal the meaning from those outside the group.

An example of a cant language which has been introduced widely into the mainstream is the Polari language which was used extensively in British gay and theatrical circles in the first half of the 20th century.[1]


The origin of the word cant itself has not been agreed upon. The word may be derived from the Irish word caint ("speech, talk"),[How to reference and link to summary or text] or it may be from the English word "chant"[How to reference and link to summary or text] or Latin cantare.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

The original meaning of "cant" was a secret language supposedly used by rogues and vagabonds in Elizabethan England. This 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[2].

In modern times "Cant" is used sometimes to refer to Shelta (alternatively known as Sheldru, Gammon, or The Cant), the cryptolectic language of Irish Travellers based on Irish and English. In Scotland, it refers to the mix of Romani, Scottish Gaelic and Scots used by Scottish Gypsies and Travellers. Scottish Highland Travellers also used a form of Gaelic backslang known as Beurla-reagaird.

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.[3]

Examples of cantsEdit

In popular cultureEdit

The computer game Planescape: Torment makes extensive use of words from old English thieves' cant, which it refers to explicitly as "the cant". Players must pick up the meanings of obscure words from context. The vast majority of the game is in ordinary English, however. Use of "the cant" originated in the Dungeons and Dragons setting on which the game is based.

Another example of cant is used in the play Our Country's Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker. The convicts speak in Cant.

Nadsat in the book and movie A Clockwork Orange is, for all intents and purposes, a cant; in the book, Alex DeLarge also mentions that one of his cellmates in "Staja (State Jail) 15" tells long stories in "old-time criminal" slang---a short sample is given, which is clearly in some form of cant.

See alsoEdit


  1. Quinion, Michael How bona to vada your eek!. World Wide Words. URL accessed on 16 February 2009.
  2. Ribton-Turner, C. J. 1887 Vagrants and Vagrancy and Beggars and Begging, London, 1887, p.245, quoting an examination taken at Salford Gaol
  3. includeonly>"Convicts use ye olde Elizabethan slang to smuggle drugs past guards into prison", Daily Mail, 2009-06-08. Retrieved on 2009-06-25.
  4. Partridge, Eric (1937) Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English

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