Introduction: The Languages

Slang, Cant, Jargon, and Flash. When on the topic of slang-based language it is well worth taking a moment to understand the nature of each. It should also be mentioned that the boundaries between these four language are not clearly defined; the differences are surface level and for the most part, they borrow from and blend with one another through their deeper-level similarities.1


First on the list is slang, since the other three types of language are offshoots of this main category. Many scholars have tried their hand at pinning a definition on slang, but the nature of the beast is that it avoids definition. For this reason, it is much more helpful to concern ourselves with characteristics, rather than a single definition. In this case, we will look at three main characteristics.


The first characteristic of slang is that it belongs to specific social cliques or age groups.2 Such examples include teenagers, soldiers, university students, drug dealers, and doctors. The slang found in each group will be unique to the slang in the other groups; you would not find teenagers speaking like doctors, for example.  When these groups intersect, their slang will move between groups; some of the slang terms from high school students will move with the students into university, that is, if these slang terms have not died off already.

Short lifespan

This brings us to the second characteristic of slang, which is that a large portion of it is short-lived.3 New slang terms are invented constantly, less popular terms fall out of misuse, and unused words get readopted and imbued with a new, vigorous meaning.


The third characteristic of slang is that it is often used to define in-groups and out-groups.Using outdated slang terms is a sure way to get oneself labeled as “uncool” by the current in-group; a fate that often befalls adults trying to look “hip” in the eyes of cool and overly-judgmental teenagers. What this points to is the incredible difficulty of staying on top of slang for an outsider trying to pass as an insider.


Jargon is best defined as the language of professionals and groups with a common interest.5 Its main characteristic is that it is highly specialized, and often used to quickly communicate information between members of a group. Examples include health professionals, computer programmers, and online gamers. A side effect of jargon is that it very easily excludes those outside of the given group since the the language tends to be highly technical, and therefore understood only by those using the jargon.6


We now move on to the secret language of thieves and beggars: cant. What largely defines this particular language is its primarily use for deception and concealment.7 An example would be to use the phrase “check your pockets” as a code to warn a fellow partner in crime of a nearby policeman; only you and your accomplices know the meaning ascribed. The specialized aspect of cant is very much similar to jargon, and the constant creation of new words and meanings to avoid discovery and maintain secrecy bears resemblance to the continuously-changing vocabulary of slang. In this way, cant is a slang language with jargon’s emphasis on function.


The fourth type of language is flash. Specifically, flash refers to the fashionable slang of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century upper class Londoners.8 This language places considerable emphasis on the cliquish part of slang, and was used to differentiate the fashionable elite of the city from the rest. Historically, these types tended to also be the types who frequented brothels, gambled, and engaged in other on-the-edge-of-the-law activities. In this way then, flash has somewhat of a connection with its more criminal cousin, cant.



1 Coleman, Julie. A History of Cant and Slang Dictionaries, Volume II 1785 – 1858. New York: Oxford         University Press, 2004. Page 2.
2 Coleman, 1
3 Coleman, 1
4 Coleman, 1
5 Coleman, 1
6 Coleman, 2
7 Coleman, 2
8 Coleman, 2

A New Dictionary of all the Cant and Flash Languages both Ancient and Modern

The Life of the Author 

Humphry Tristram Potter (1747-1790)1 was born Born at Clay in Worcestershire to a pair of well-educated parents of respectable social standing.2 He secured a position as a preacher and on April 29, 1773 he was admitted an attorney in the Court of King’s Bench, and after that becomes a member of the English Court of Common Pleas.3 Potter’s success in managing his finances was a different story. In 1776 Potter went bankrupt, but thanks to his position in office he was able to avoid the much-dreaded debtor’s prison.

Potter would encounter trouble sure enough, but it come not from his chequebook, but from his friends. One amongst them was Dr. Graham, who ran the Temple of Health in Pall-Mall. Failing to produce enough revenue from the Temple’s earnings, Dr. Graham rented the grounds out illegally to a group of cultists who worshiped a goddess of fortune.5 Still not content even with the added cash flow from the cultists, Graham decided he would make even more money if he transferred ownership of the property to someone else: his friend, Humphry Potter. Being a man of the law, Potter objected to Graham’s illicit activity. In an attempt to make the Dr. confess, Potter stormed into the Temple accompanied by a group of attendants and after a clash with the cultists, Potter seized control of the property.6

Here is when Potter’s misfortune begins. Rather than return the property to its former use, Potter decided to use the Temple in the same manner as Dr. Graham: by making money illegally through renting out the premises. Discovered by the authorities, Potter was fined, arrested, and imprisoned in Newgate for twelve months.7 Several years later, in 1786, a rival of Potter attempted to oust him from his place in office by accusing Potter of alleged malpractice. Potter insisted that his opponent’s argument was inadequate in supporting the charges. Unfortunately for Potter, his opponent pointed out Potter’s past illegal use of the Temple of Health some years earlier.The judges considered this a good enough reason for striking Potter off the roll of the Court of King’s Bench. Not long after, Potter was called to court again and struck off the roll for the Court of Common Pleas.9 In 1788 Potter is sent to prison a second time, again for a year, in addition to having to stand in the pillories.10

Potter died in 1790 at a public house near Lant Street, Southwark, and his remains were decently interred.11 The editor of Potter’s dictionary, who provided the above details of Potter’s life, is of the opinion that Potter committed his crimes as a result of giving into temptation rather than being inherently malicious. He also comments that Potter had many close friendships and few were as knowledgeable of Crown Law as Potter.12 To conclude, the editor claims that the bottom line is that Potter’s actions did not always line up with his intentions.13

The Dictionary


Potter’s book was entirely composed by himself, and dedicated to William Addington, a justice of the peace.14 The  editor tells us that Potter had friends of every rank and background, which provided him with firsthand exposure to cant and flash.14 The editor also claims that this dictionary is one of the best examples of its kind, suggesting that the relationships that Potter held with his friends were key to the writing of a cant and flash dictionary of such quality.15

Physical Appearance

Front cover

Front cover

Potter’s Dictionary is quite eye-catching. The cover features a colorful swirl pattern that has withstood the test of time. Another physical attribute that stands out is the size. One would assume that a dictionary such as this one, that aims to encompass the languages of cant and flash would be exceedingly large. At a mere 69 pages in length, it goes against this expectation of size. It could be that this dictionary contains the foundations of cant and flash, or that it contains the most commonly-used terms. Either way, it warrants a closer look at what lies behind the cover of this book.



The Contents

Cover Page

Cover Page

Cover Page

Here we are presented with the cover page. First, there is the title which consists of title, and then an extensive description detailing the types of language, cant and flash, and the groups that use these languages: gypsies, beggars, and an assortment of criminals. The description continues by providing a number of key names: Jonathan Wild and Baxter as two sources, and Potter as the compiler of the information from these sources. Finally, the cover page dedicates the work to William Addington and at the very bottom line it includes the publisher’s information.




2Like the cover page, the preface includes words of dedication to William Addington. It then continues with a description of crime, the arms race between criminals and enforcers of justice, and the danger that its practitioners pose to the public. Potter cites criminal jargon, or cant, as one of the ways in which criminals operate; by disguising their intent through creating their own language and codewords, criminals are able to dupe their victims and avoid detection. Potter then describes that the primary purpose of his dictionary is to reveal the secret language of criminals to the reader, thus allowing the reader to protect himself from their nefarious ways, or to capture them if the reader should be a member of the police.

Names of Offenders


Names of offenders (page 16)

On this page we see a list of the names of 61 different types of offenders, from Abraham Man (1) to Upright Man (61). It is reasonable to assume that these would have been the most notorious types of criminals, and thus considered to be the most important to include at the beginning of the book, before the list of definitions. By listing the types of criminals, the reader also gets an idea of the most common types of crimes. While we as modern readers might be unsure of what kind of crimes a Gingler (33) or a Knacker (36) might have practiced, others such as Shoplifter (56) and Sturdy Beggar (52) are much more familiar; we still use the term shoplifter, and while its meaning might have been different in the eighteenth century, its association with crime is undeniable and familiar. Gypsie (31, written unintentionally as 13) is of especial interest since the inclusion of this word on the list speaks of the longtime association of gypsies with crime.



Definitions (page 57)

Here we have a sample page from the main “definitions” section of the dictionary, in the S part of the alphabet. Especially interesting to note is that the definitions of several of the offenders from the earlier list are given here. Swaddler, which appears in place #49 on the earlier “Names of Offenders”, is defined here as “a methodist preacher – a pitiful fellow, the tenth order of the canting line”. Spicer, which takes place #55 on the list is defined as, “a petty thief – a footpad”; footpad is offender #27 on the list. We see then that the types of criminals listed at the beginning of the dictionary are then defined later in the dictionary. This suggests that the reader of the dictionary would not have known what a footpad, or a spicer, or a swaddler was, otherwise the definition for each offender would not have been given. This reveals that these names would have been created by criminals for each other, rather than by the public to describe said criminals. A final note should be had on the fact that the dictionary titles itself as a dictionary of flash terms, as well as cant terms. The slang of the upper class, the flash element of the dictionary can be seen in the inclusion of words such as Swagg, “goods or property of any kind”, and its variation Rum, “full of riches”. In this way, while primarily focused on combating crime through listing words that make up its language, Potter’s dictionary contains a significant element of flash terms as well.


We see then that Potter’s A New Dictionary of all the Cant and Flash Languages is more than a mere dictionary; it is a product of his life and life’s experiences. It contains the language that he learned from his acquaintances,  who came from both the criminal underworld and the upper class of England, bringing their cant and flash respectively. Most significantly, it is a tool. It teaches the reader the language of criminals and grants the knowledge that Potter felt would allow those who read his dictionary to detect criminals and criminal activity, and thus avoid it or bring justice to the perpetrators.



2  Potter, Humphry Tristram. A New Dictionary of all the Cant and Flash Languages. London:                       Printed by W. Mackintosh, and sold by J. Downes, No.240, Temple Bar, 1796.                                    RBSC call # SP PE 25 R62 V.271. Page 5.
3  Potter, 8
4  Potter, 8
5  Potter, 10
6  Potter ,11
7  Potter ,11
8  Potter ,12
9  Potter, 13
10 Potter, 13
11 Potter,14
12 Potter, 14
13 Potter, 15
14 Potter, 15
15 Potter, 15


Further exploration A: Commercialization of Cant


The cant dictionary soon became a sensation, and its popularity skyrocketed. Over time, it changed from a text intended to educate and protect the reader from crime to a text concerned primarily with entertainment. The chief concern of the publishers of these cant dictionaries was profit, and the cover pages of the dictionaries advertised the renown of their compilers in a similar manner as the New York Times bestselling authors of today.1  In many cases, these compilers were incompetent in terms of being historians of the language, etymologists, definers, grammarians, or proof-readers.2 In other words, the commercialized dictionaries were more concerned with selling and less so with historical or academic integrity or accuracy. As a matter of fact, serious scholars of the time tended to view slang lexicography as an unrewarding area of study, and academics were generally more interested in social aspects of language use.3  In the meantime, amateur lexicographers were mass-producing slang glossaries to meet the demands of a profitable market .4 Long story short: slang dictionaries had become all about the money.

The Caveat of Warening for Commen Cursetors


Published in 1567 by Thomas Harman, the Caveat marked the beginning of a lucrative branch of publishing known as the cant list.5 Cant lists such as the Caveat claimed to contain insider knowledge of the language of criminals, and fed the then-current mass fascination and fear of crime.6 These cant lists were produced primarily as a commercial endeavor, and many were released repeatedly in new editions that were little changed from their previous versions.7

Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785),204,203,200_.jpg

Similar to Harman, Grose published his Classical Dictionary with the intention less to educate and more to amuse the reader.8 The dictionary also proves to be a valuable source of information about slang and colloquial language in the eighteenth century.9 One reason for the dictionary’s usefulness as a slang reference is that Grose has included a great deal of information from other cant and slang dictionaries. As he describes in his introduction, Grose uses B.E.’s New Dictionary and the New Canting Dictionary, as sources of material.10 The size of the Classical Dictionary is impressive as well. Grose includes 3,893 entries within his dictionary, and of these entries, 2,127 come from the word-lists of the New Dictionary and the New Canting Dictionary.11 


Flash literature: Pierce Egan’s Life in London

  • Produced in a series of issues, Life in London tells the story of its protagonist Jerry Hawthorn as he is introduced to the excesses of the city by his cousin Corinthian Tom, an upper class man of fashion.12 A major success, Life in London was produced in ever-greater numbers with each issue.13  Importantly, one of the most popular elements of the work is its use and inclusion of metropolitan slang terms or flash, which caught on with members of all levels of society.14  In the case of Life in London, the language was a large contributer to its popularity, and is indicative of a society that was fascinated by the language of those on the edge, and the other side, of the law.



1 Coleman, Julie. A History of Cant and Slang Dictionaries, Volume IV 1937 – 1984. New York:                   Oxford University Press, 2010. Page 2.
2 Coleman Vol. IV, 2
3 Coleman Vol. IV, 1
4 Coleman Vol. IV, 2
5 Coleman, Julie. A History of Cant and Slang Dictionaries, Volume II 1785 – 1858. New York:                     Oxford University Press, 2004. Page ix.
6 Coleman Vol. II, ix
7 Coleman Vol. IV, xv
8 Coleman, Vol II, 5
9 Coleman Vol. II 5
10 Coleman Vol. II, 18-19
11 Coleman Vol. II, 19
12. Coleman Vol. II, 154
13 Coleman Vol. II, 156
14 Coleman Vol. II, 156

Further exploration B: Tramp Language

The Setting

The hobo culture that prompted the creation of tramp language dictionaries can be traced to the United States of America. In 1893 hobos comprised 1 percent of America’s male population, and used extensive systems of communication to relay information between one another regarding their travel and work.1 This form of slang developed as a way in which tramps and hobos could talk to each other while keeping the nature of their conversations hidden from outsiders.2  In contrast to cant, the purpose of hobo-talk was not so much to trick victims of crime or evade the police, but more as a way of maintaining exclusivity and to ensure that only those intimately connected with the hobo’s way of life could be a part of conversations between hobos.3  Hobos often had spent time in prison, and thanks to prison libraries, hobos were often well read individuals, but there were times when their own vocabularies could not make certain thoughts and feelings clear, necessitating the creation of their own language.4

Popular Discourse

General consensus among the public was that homelessness threatened the American way of life. This stemmed largely from the competition for employment that hobos presented for settled citizens, and the possibility of sons and, less commonly, daughters leaving their families to become hobos.As a result of the perceived threat of homelessness on property, jobs, and family, the general public tended to view hobos as criminals. Helping to inform this viewpoint is the similarity between the language of criminals and hobos, owing to the fact that many tramps were either former or failed criminals.6 Consequentially, the language of hobos and tramps tended to be viewed as cant rather than slang due to the association between crime and homelessness.

Example Book

One notable example of a written work concerned with tramp language is Tramping With Tramps written by Josiah Flynt Willard (1869-1907). This book is autobiographical in nature, and includes a detailed discussion of tramp language courtesy of Willard.7 Willard comments that due to importance of language for tramps and hobos, being able to use tramp language is of utmost importance if one is to associate with them; at the same time, Willard stresses that the secrecy of tramp language makes it impossible to learn this language from a dictionary.8 Instead of learning this language from a book, Willard explains that the way in which one acquires knowledge of tramp-talk is by moving between the world of the civilized citizen and the hobo.9




1 Coleman Vol. III, 276
2 Coleman Vol. III, 277
3 Coleman Vol. III, 277
4 Coleman Vol. III, 278
5 Coleman Vol. III, 277
6 Coleman Vol. III, 278
7 Coleman Vol. III, 277
8 Coleman Vol. III, 277
9 Coleman Vol. III, 278

Further exploration C: Drug Slang Dictionaries


From the nineteen thirties and onwards, illegal drug use was increasingly becoming a cause of concern in the United States of America.1 The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 aimed to control the sale of heroin and cocaine; 1937 marked the criminalization of non-medical marijuana after the Federal Bureau of Narcotics linked marijuana use with jazz music and violent crime; LSD became illegal in 1968.2  The bottom line: Drugs had become synonymous with crime. A final note is that a great deal of slang arose from drug culture, and the criminalization of drugs correspondingly transformed drug slang into a criminal language.

Drug Dictionaries

One way in which we can determine this increasing concern of drug consumption is by the corresponding increase in the production of drug glossaries during this period.3 A large percentage of this demand for drug dictionaries came from parents, teachers, prison officials, and welfare and medical professionals who regularly and increasingly dealt with the social, physical, and psychological effects of drug addiction.4 Other readers of these drug dictionaries were federal and policing agencies attempting to target international criminal networks behind the pandemic of drug trafficking  that was occurring within the country.5

Drug Dictionaries – Language and usage

Drug dictionaries contained a cocktail blend of jargon and slang. The jargon portion of the dictionary came from the medical terminology and pharmaceutical names of the drugs, while the street terms for each respective drug made up the slang element in the dictionaries and word lists.6 This is logical given that professionals needed to understand the slang terms to have an idea of what drugs addicts and dealers were referring to.7  By learning the slang terms for drugs, parents could then recognize if and when their children were talking about drugs, and what kinds of drugs were being discussed. Unwittingly to the publishers, professionals, and parents, the dictionaries provided addicts and dealers with the information they needed in order to seek suitable substitutes for a given drug during times of shortage, or create synthetic substances using the chemical composition of drugs found in the reference books much in the same manner as a cook uses a cookbook.8

Drug Dictionaries – Examples

Los Angeles Police Department’s Youth and Narcotics (1952)


Created for use by the police, this report examines, as the title suggests, drug use amongst adolescents. The report is based on case studies from police files, and makes a point of emphasizing the danger that Los Angeles’s foreign borders and international airports pose; they are gateways for the illegal drugs to enter the area into the hands of teenagers. (Coleman Vol IV, 296).9 Of especial interest is the glossary of this report, which includes approximately 185 headwords of drug-related lingo used by teenagers.9 These terms include words like “buzzing” (trying to make a purchase), and “tea-head” (a marijuana addict or user).10



Charles L. Winek et al., A Glossary of Drugs

ucm079817Winek created this pamphlet with the intention to create an educational aid for parents and teachers and students.11 It begins with a brief introduction with four separate glossaries: ‘general terms’ (e.g. delusion, stimulant), ‘drugs and chemicals’ (e.g. Dexedrine, laudanum), ‘drug abuse terminology’ (e.g. delirium, withdrawal symptoms) and ‘slang terms’.12  One example entry is included below: BLUE VELVET – mixture of elixir terpin hydrate and codeine, and an antihistamine (pyribenzamine); or paregoric acid and antihistamine.13

Sydney Coden’s The Drug Dilemma (1969)


This reference book was written for teachers and student counselors and teachers.14 In his work Coden looks at social changes that might lead young people to experiment with drugs.15 This book is largely rhetorical and alleges that drug use is a sign of emotional immaturity, and warns of the dangers of chasing “the ultimate high”.16 The glossary contains approximately 125 headwords, and has no separate introduction or explanation.17 Entries include definitions such as the Man (the police), and Tripping out (high on psychedelics).18


Drug dictionaries can be seen as an evolution of the cant dictionary. While not explicitly stated within the dictionaries, the association of drugs and crime, and the prevalence of drug-related crime from criminalizing drug use and possession, invariably sets drug slang as a criminal language. The function of drug dictionaries as seen by the above examples is primarily as a tool to educate teachers, parents, and professionals to better help them deal with drug addicts, but equally, they were being used by drug dealers and addicts to help them create and substitute different types of substances.



 Coleman, Julie. A History of Cant and Slang Dictionaries, Volume IV 1937 – 1984. New York:                   Oxford University Press, 2010. Page 291
Coleman, Vol. IV, 292
Coleman Vol. IV, 291
Coleman Vol. IV, 291
Coleman Vol. IV, 291
Coleman Vol. IV, 291
Coleman Vol. IV, 291
Coleman Vol. IV, 291
Coleman Vol IV, 296
10 Coleman Vol IV, 296
11 Coleman Vol. IV, 300
12 Coleman Vol. IV, 300
13 Coleman Vol. IV, 300
14 Coleman Vol. IV, 302
15 Coleman Vol. IV, 302
16 Coleman Vol. IV, 302
17 Coleman Vol. IV, 302
18 Coleman Vol. IV, 302