A cant is the jargon or language of a group, often employed to exclude or mislead people outside the group.[1] It may also be called a cryptolect, argot, pseudo-language, anti-language or secret language. Each term differs slightly in meaning; their uses are inconsistent. Richard Rorty defines cant by saying that "'Cant', in the sense in which Samuel Johnson exclaims, 'Clear your mind of cant,' means, in other words, something like that which 'people usually say without thinking, the standard thing to say, what one normally says'." In Heideggerian terms it is what "das Man" says.[2]


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


An argot (English: /ˈɑːrɡ/; from French argot [aʁɡo] 'slang') is a language used by various groups to prevent outsiders from understanding their conversations. The term argot is also used to refer to the informal specialized vocabulary from a particular field of study, occupation, or hobby, in which sense it overlaps with jargon.

In his 1862 novel Les Misérables, Victor Hugo refers to that argot as both "the language of the dark" and "the language of misery".[5]

The earliest known record of the term argot in this context was in a 1628 document. The word was probably derived from the contemporary name les argotiers, given to a group of thieves at that time.[6]

Under the strictest definition, an argot is a proper language with its own grammatical system.[7] Such complete secret languages are rare because the speakers usually have some public language in common, on which the argot is largely based. Such argots are lexically divergent forms of a particular language, with a part of its vocabulary replaced by words unknown to the larger public; argot used in this sense is synonymous with cant. For example, argot in this sense is used for systems such as verlan and louchébem, which retain French syntax and apply transformations only to individual words (and often only to a certain subset of words, such as nouns, or semantic content words).[8] Such systems are examples of argots à clef, or "coded argots".[8]

Specific words can go from argot into everyday speech or the other way. For example, modern French loufoque 'crazy', 'goofy', now common usage, originated in the louchébem transformation of Fr. fou 'crazy'.

In the field of medicine, physicians have been said to have their own spoken argot, cant, or slang, which incorporates commonly understood abbreviations and acronyms, frequently used technical colloquialisms, and much everyday professional slang (that may or may not be institutionally or geographically localized).[9] While many of these colloquialisms may prove impenetrable to most lay people, few seem to be specifically designed to conceal meaning from patients (perhaps because standard medical terminology would usually suffice anyway).[9]


The concept of the anti-language was first defined and studied by the linguist Michael Halliday, who used the term to describe the lingua franca of an anti-society. He defined an anti-language as a language created and used by an anti-society.[10] An anti-society is a small, separate community intentionally created within a larger society as an alternative to or resistance of it.[10] For example, Adam Podgórecki studied one anti-society composed of Polish prisoners; Bhaktiprasad Mallik of Sanskrit College studied another composed of criminals in Calcutta.[10]

These societies develop anti-languages as a means to prevent outsiders from understanding their communication and as a manner of establishing a subculture that meets the needs of their alternative social structure.[11] Anti-languages differ from slang and jargon in that they are used solely among ostracized social groups, including prisoners,[12] criminals, homosexuals,[11] and teenagers.[13] Anti-languages use the same basic vocabulary and grammar as their native language in an unorthodox fashion. For example, anti-languages borrow words from other languages, create unconventional compounds, or utilize new suffixes for existing words. Anti-languages may also change words using metathesis, reversal of sounds or letters (e.g., apple to elppa), or substituting their consonants.[10] Therefore, anti-languages are distinct and unique and are not simply dialects of existing languages.

In his essay "Anti-Language", Halliday synthesized the research of Thomas Harman, Adam Podgórecki, and Bhaktiprasad Mallik to explore anti-languages and the connection between verbal communication and the maintenance of a social structure. For this reason, the study of anti-languages is both a study of sociology and linguistics. Halliday's findings can be compiled as a list of nine criteria that a language must meet to be considered an anti-language:

Examples of anti-languages include Cockney rhyming slang, CB slang, verlan, the grypsera of Polish prisons, thieves' cant,[14] Polari,[15] and possibly[weasel words] Bangime.[16]

In popular culture

Anti-languages are sometimes created by authors and used by characters in novels. These anti-languages do not have complete lexicons, cannot be observed in use for linguistic description, and therefore cannot be studied in the same way a language spoken by an existing anti-society would. However, they are still used in the study of anti-languages. Roger Fowler's "Anti-Languages in Fiction" analyzes Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange and William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch to redefine the nature of the anti-language and to describe its ideological purpose.[17]

A Clockwork Orange is a popular example of a novel where the main character is a teenage boy who speaks an anti-language called Nadsat. This language is often referred to as an argot, but it has been argued that it is an anti-language because of the social structure it maintains through the social class of the droogs.[13]

Regional usage of term

In parts of Connacht, in Ireland, cant mainly refers to an auction, typically on fair day ("Cantmen and Cantwomen, some from as far away as Dublin, would converge on Mohill on a Fair Day, ... set up their stalls ... and immediately start auctioning off their merchandise") and secondly means talk ("very entertaining conversation was often described as 'great cant'" or "crosstalk").[18][19]

In Scotland, two unrelated creole languages are termed cant. Scottish Cant (a mixed language, primarily Scots and Romani with Scottish Gaelic influences) is spoken by lowland Roma groups. Highland Traveller's Cant (or Beurla Reagaird) is a Gaelic-based cant of the Indigenous Highland Traveller population.[3] The cants are mutually unintelligible.

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]


Thieves' cant

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.[22]


Ulti is a language studied and documented by Bhaktiprasad Mallik in his book Languages of the Underworld of West Bengal.[23] Ulti is an anti-language derived from Bengali and used by criminals and affiliates. The Ulti word kodān 'shop' is derived from rearranging the letters in the Bengali word dokān, which also means 'shop'.[citation needed]

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. ^ Rorty, Richard (2001). Redemption from Egotism: James and Proust as Spiritual Exercises. The Estate of Richard Rorty. p. 390. ISBN 978-1-4051-9831-8.
  3. ^ a b c d Kirk, J. & Ó Baoill, D. Travellers and their Language (2002) Queen's University Belfast ISBN 0-85389-832-4
  4. ^ a b Collins English Dictionary 21st Century Edition (2001) HarperCollins ISBN 0-00-472529-8
  5. ^ Schwartz, Robert M. "Interesting Facts about Convicts of France in the 19th Century". Mt. Holyoke University. Archived from the original on 2021-07-03. Retrieved 2019-04-26.
  6. ^ Guiraud, Pierre, L'Argot. Que sais-je?, Paris: PUF, 1958, p. 700
  7. ^ Carol De Dobay Rifelj (1987). Word and Figure: The Language of Nineteenth-Century French Poetry. Ohio State University Press. p. 10. ISBN 9780814204221.
  8. ^ a b Valdman, Albert (May 2000). "La Langue des faubourgs et des banlieues: de l'argot au français populaire". The French Review (in French). 73 (6). American Association of Teachers of French: 1179–1192. JSTOR 399371.
  9. ^ a b Hukill, Peter B.; H., A. L.; Jackson, James L. (1961). "The Spoken Language of Medicine: Argot, Slang, Cant". American Speech. 36 (2): 145–151. doi:10.2307/453853. JSTOR 453853.
  10. ^ a b c d Halliday, M. a. K. (1976-09-01). "Anti-Languages". American Anthropologist. 78 (3): 570–584. doi:10.1525/aa.1976.78.3.02a00050. ISSN 1548-1433.
  11. ^ a b Baker, Paul (2002). Polari The Lost Language of Gay Men. Routledge. pp. 13–14. ISBN 978-0415261807.
  12. ^ Zarzycki, Łukasz. "Socio-lingual Phenomenon of the Anti-language of Polish and American Prison Inmates" (PDF). Crossroads.
  13. ^ a b Kohn, Liberty. "Antilanguage and a Gentleman's Goloss: Style, Register, and Entitlement To Irony in A Clockwork Orange" (PDF). ESharp: 1–27.
  14. ^ Martin Montgomery (January 1986), "Language and subcultures: Anti-language", An introduction to language and society, Methuen, ISBN 9780416346305
  15. ^ "Polari: The Lost Language of Gay Men", Lancaster University. Department of Linguistics and English Language.
  16. ^ Bradley M, "The secret ones", New Scientist, 31 May 2014, pp. 42-45
  17. ^ Fowler, Roger (Summer 1979). "Anti-Language in Fiction". Style. 13 (3): 259–278. JSTOR 42945250.
  18. ^ Dolan 2006, pp. 43.
  19. ^ O'Crohan 1987.
  20. ^ Partridge, Eric (1937) Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English
  21. ^ Pstrusińska, Jadwiga (2013). Secret languages of Afghanistan and their speakers. Cambridge Scholars Publ. p. 34. ISBN 978-1-4438-4970-8. OCLC 864565715.
  22. ^ Ribton-Turner, C. J. 1887 Vagrants and Vagrancy and Beggars and Begging, London, 1887, p.245, quoting an examination taken at Salford Gaol
  23. ^ Mallik, Bhaktiprasad (1972). Language of the underworld of West Bengal. Sanskrit College.

Secondary sources

Further reading[edit]

  • Halliday, M. A. K. (1976) "Anti-Languages". American Anthropologist 78 (3) pp. 570–584