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The Language of Thieves and Vagabonds 17th and 18th Century Canting Lexicography in England.

Maurizio Gotti: The Language of Thieves and Vagabonds. 17th and 18th Century Canting Lexicography in England. Lexicographica, Series Maior 94. Tubingen: Niemeyer, 1999. vi + 159 pp. DM 96.00 (paperback).

The English lexicography of cant is richer than in any other European country, and it has been relatively well explored, especially since the sixteenth-century tradition was both edited and commented on by the EETS and Shakespearean scholars. Almost all the available data before 1800 were discussed in a seminal article by Noyes (1991 [1941], reprinted in Starnes and Noyes 1946). When the book was reprinted in 1991, the new editor Stein contributed an extensive introduction, which did not, however, affect Noyes's article. Gotti follows in the footsteps of these earlier scholars, filling in data that had been omitted, drawing a few parallels, and pointing out connections, but supplying little new evidence. He starts with a sociolinguistic survey of the underworld (pp. 5-15) and continues with summaries of the data before 1665 (pp. 16-32), when a cultural break came with the Restoration -- and when Richard Head's The English Rogue (1665) and The Canting Academy (1673), discussed in the next chapter (pp. 33-48), set new standards of comprehensiveness and sociolinguistic insight. No wonder that Head's works were quarried for nonstandard material by lexicographers intent on surpassing the number of entries included by their predecessors and competitors. The first of these was Elisha Coles in 1676 (pp. 49-59), followed by the antiquary B.E. (16987) whose New Dictionary adds more modern cant lexis (pp. 60-67). The anonymous Ladies Dictionary (1694) was meant for the "General entertainment for the fair sex" but includes a large amount of cant, mainly drawn from Coles and Head's collections (pp. 68-75). Smith's Thieves New Canting Dictionary is included in the fifth edition (1720) of his collection of criminals' biographies first published in 1724 (pp. 76-84), Gotti points out that the text of the early editions also contains some data on cant overlooked by other researchers. The New Canting Dictionary of 1725 (pp. 85-93) is probably the most comprehensive compilation of the early eighteenth century; it was greatly admired and used, inter alia, by Fielding for realistic touches in his novel Jonathan Wild. The Discoveries of John Poulter (1753) is of interest as being written by an insider who was hanged in 1754 (pp. 94-100). Gotti can here draw attention to a minor source never competently analyzed in modern research. This is not so in the case of Grose's Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue of 1785 (pp. 101-113), which has become classical also in a different sense. Grose freely admits his indebtedness to a great variety of sources to produce the largest relevant compilation ever and also provides a link to the flourishing lexicography of nineteenth-century slang (it is a pity that Gotti did not consider Hewson Clarke's Lexicon Balatronicum, A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pickpocket Eloquence of 1811, which is based on Grose but "now considerably altered and enlarged, with the modern changes and improvements"). A short chapter summarizes the evolution of the concept of cant (pp. 114-122), including the new term "slang." No new analysis of the data is undertaken in order to define the terms; the terms .as used by compilers are notoriously vague -- and this is still so, an impression one gets at least when looking at the inclusiveness of Partridge's dictionaries of modern and historical slang. Appendixes (pp. 123-135) list the terms included in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century dictionaries of slang and in Coles (but not in Bailey or Johnson). An extensive bibliography (pp. 137-140) and indexes (pp. 143-159) follow at the end.

My review has made clear that Gotti mainly summarizes earlier research, especially by Burke, Partridge, and Noyes. What additions might it have been helpful to have -- considering that the chance was missed to update Noyes's (1991 [1941]) account? I would have liked to have seen

1. a quantificational analysis of the speed of lexical change as evident from the inclusion in cant dictionaries;

2. a documentation of cant lexis in general dictionaries of the eighteenth century (as provided for Coles); and a coherent description of how slang moved up into (informal) general lexis;

3. a more consistent treatment of etymology; in particular, how much did more or less well defined, and less or more documented, anti-languages like Polari, Romany, Shelta, and Yiddish contribute?

However, it is good to have Gotti's summary, rightly placed in the sociological context and neatly bound up in one volume to document a peripheral but exciting slice of the lexical history of English.

MANFRED GORLACH University of Cologne


Noyes, Gertrude E. (1991 [1941]). The development of cant lexicography in English, 1566-1785. In The English Dictionary from Cawdrey to Johnson 1604-1755, De Witt F. Starnes and Gertrude E. Noyes; G. Stein (ed.), 212-227. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Linguistics: an interdisciplinary journal of the language sciences
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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