Cant and Slang Dictionaries: 1858-1936

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leicester
Department Name: English


Glossaries of cant (the secret language of thieves) date from the 16th century; glossaries of slang from the 17th. I have published two books surveying slang and cant dictionaries published 1567-1858, and I want to continue my survey by looking at word-lists appearing between 1859 and 1836. This is a fascinating period of continuing urbanisation and industrialisation, during which the British Empire expanded rapidly by acquiring vast territories in Asia and Africa. English changed as it spread ever further around the globe and new forms were largely dismissed as colonial slang. Similarly, dictionaries of American slang were first produced to stigmatise recent developments in the language, but later to express pride in the vitality of American slang and to help immigrants assimilate. Although no dictionaries from this period go so far as to express pride in ethnicity, it is clear that urban Black Americans were beginning to use their language as a symbol of solidarity and resistance, and that it was achieving wider currency through its use in jazz and swing.
Quite apart from its far-reaching effects on society, WWI led to unprecedented contact between speech-communities. Servicemen (and some women) were exposed to the speech not only of the whole geographical and social range of spoken English, but also to a range of other languages. The camaraderie of service life, in opposition to the hierarchy and bureaucracy of the military organisation, was conducive to the development of an informal language that acknowledged shared experience and provided ample opportunity for repeated petty rebellions. The results of all of these linguistic contacts are seen in WWI slang glossaries. The continued publication of such lists in the inter-war period also reveals changing attitudes towards the war that was supposed to end all wars.
The effects of the Depression are seen in a gradual increase in tramp and hobo glossaries after the war. Dictionaries of drugs slang also date from this period, though several terms relating to opium use had appeared in the earlier colonial lists. Despite the increasingly apparent inevitability of WWII, many slang glossaries of the 20s and 30s are remarkably upbeat in detailing the non-standard language of schools and colleges, circuses and carnivals, radio and film. The lure of Hollywood was such that several lists were put together specifically for would-be screenwriters wanting to produce convincing dialogue without the inconvenience of stepping away from the typewriter.
Almost 400 glossaries of cant and slang were published during this period, and although I aim to provide an overview of them all, I will concentrate particularly on a number of important works: Hotten's Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words (1859), Barrère and Leland's Dictionary of Slang, Jargon and Cant (1889-1890), Farmer and Henley's Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present (1890-1904), Maitland's American Slang Dictionary (1891) and Weseen's Dictionary of American Slang (1934). Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1937), with a similarly broad geographical and chronological scope, falls just outside the scope of this project, but I will return to it later.
Slang dictionaries serve a variety of functions. For their producers, they can be commercial ventures, expressions of individual or group identity, demonstrations of knowledge, whether scholarly or otherwise, or practical tools intended to change the world. For their purchasers, they answer a range of emotional needs (commemoration, aspiration, curiosity, anxiety, disapproval, prurience, etc.) and they range from the instructive to the purely entertaining. From either perspective, they are not merely interesting publications in their own right; they also offer a fascinating insight into the relationships between society and its subgroups, the colonial power and its colonies, the ruling and the rules classes, the individual and his/her world.


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Coleman J (2009) Forensic Dictionary Analysis: Principles and Practice in International Journal of Lexicography