Words in Progress: Cant – A Gentleman’s Guide to the Language of Rogues in Georgian London

When I’m using resource books for a particular story, I attempt to replace them back on my bookshelves before starting on the next one set in a different era. However, I was reminded in a recent online conversation thread started by lovely Ruby Moone that there are certain books that are left out as a necessity rather than from forgetfulness!

One of these is the wonderfully named Cant – A Gentleman’s Guide to the Language of Rogues in Georgian London by Stephen Hart. As the title might suggest, this lively book has the tongue-in-cheek premise of a guidebook for a modern time traveller heading back to the Georgian era. The introduction suggests that visitors must make sure they have their inoculations up to date and take the book to keep up with the lingo. As the author suggests, “Don’t be a sapskull. Carry it with you at all times.”

This is such a fun read, packed with information in an entertaining way to fulfil the premise of guiding a tourist safely around the many hazards of the city. It contains suitable greetings in cant terms and then leads the visitor through the language and pitfalls of drinking houses, gambling dens and the all-important and ubiquitous rogues they might encounter.

It’s fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable, but that’s not why it’s almost always to hand near my computer. Most people probably have better memories, as when in the middle of writing, a specific historical term inevitably escapes me.

So if I have Cant close by, I can quickly check and select one of the seemingly hundreds of terms for gin. I can decide between daffy, blue ruin, rag water or geneva for starters and whether my character has sufficient blunt, balsam, quids or rhino to pay for their beverage in a bowsing ken.

Language is a flexible and moveable feast and thankfully, doesn’t rigidly stick to a strict historical era, so consulting Cant is invaluable whether I’m writing the latest story in my Regency Twelve Letters series set in the early nineteenth century, or my WIP Lucky John, that takes place shortly before the Restoration in the seventeenth century.  

It almost makes me wish that (with Cant safely stowed in my pocket) I could return to Georgian London to experience all that rich and colourful idiom in situ, that is, as soon as I check my inoculations are up to date!


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