Writing always accrues detritus so here’s some bits and pieces from Prosperity
If you use Spotify, the link to the playlist is here.
The history of cant really fascinates me, but I am in no way an expert, and obviously the cant used in Prosperity is meant to characterful and colourful, and not an accurate of representation of the underworld slang in common usage circa 1860.
Dil is a tangle of influences and inspirations – flavoured with a certain amount of personal sympathy for the greedily aspirational – but Mr John Dawkins, Dickens’ Artful Dodger is perhaps the most obvious of them. And while I haven’t directly attempted to mimic Dickens’ representation of the Dodger’s speech, you can certainly see its influence:
Walking for sivin days!’ said the young gentleman. ‘Oh, I see. Beak’s order, eh? But,’ he added, noticing Oliver’s look of surprise, ‘I suppose you don’t know what a beak is, my flash com-pan-i-on.’
Oliver mildly replied, that he had always heard a bird’s mouth described by the term in question.
‘My eyes, how green!’ exclaimed the young gentleman. ‘Why, a beak’s a madgst’rate; and when you walk by a beak’s order, it’s not straight forerd, but always agoing up, and niver a coming down agin. Was you never on the mill?’
‘What mill?’ inquired Oliver.
‘What mill! Why, the mill—the mill as takes up so little room that it’ll work inside a Stone Jug; and always goes better when the wind’s low with people, than when it’s high; acos then they can’t get workmen. But come,’ said the young gentleman; ‘you want grub, and you shall have it. I’m at low-water-mark myself—only one bob and a magpie; but, as far as it goes, I’ll fork out and stump. Up with you on your pins. There! Now then!”
The other interesting/problematic thing about the history of cant is that it is, of course, an oral tradition – a secretive, ever-shifting one – and while cant dictionaries have been around since the early 17th century, they’re obviously compiled by scholars, hobbyists and pretenders, sometimes (though sometimes not) in consultation with actual practitioners of the language. In fact, the majority of sources for cant dictionaries are … err … other cant dictionaries. And I’m pretty convinced that at least some of the terms that have been diligently passed down through the centuries can be traced back to some roguish genelman taking the piss.
My main source is Francis’s Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, which is mainly compiled (though effectively so) from previous word lists (specifically those published by Harman, Head and B.E. the previous centuries). I mean, you only have to look as Grosey to conclude the dude has probably never met a criminal in his life.
There are actually three editions of the Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, the first published in 1785, the second in 1788 (noticeably cleaner, and somewhat expanded), and third in 1796, which was actually five years after his death. It was reprinted in slightly curious circumstances, but its expansions and incorporations were supposedly Grose’s. While it polishes up several entries, it also introduces a bunch of proofing errors and other crap so *throws up hands* who knows.
It’s the second (1788) edition that is actually currently available as the 1811 edition, even though it was originally published as The Lexicon Balatronicum as follows:
A dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pickpocket Eloquence. Compiled originally by Captain Grose. And now considerably altered and enlarged, with the modern changes and improvements, by a member of the Whip Club. Assisted by Hell-Fire Dick, and James Gorden, Esqrs. of Cambridge; and William Soames, Esq. of the Hon. Society of Newman’s Hotel.
From what I can tell, it wasn’t ‘considerably’ altered or enlarged at all. And I have no idea whoever the fuck Hell-Fire Dick is supposed to be. Apart from a 19th century illegal book pirate.
My other major source is Pierce Egan’s Life in London, even though its mostly derived from the Lexicon. It’s a very silly book about a country bumpkin called Jerry Hawthorn who is introduced to London life by his fashionable friends Corinthian Tom, Bob Logic, and Mistress Kate. It was a big hit, and it led to Egan bringing out an edition of … yeah you guessed it … Grose’s Dictionary in 1823. I’m pretty sure – he says, on no evidence at all – that Heyer derives a lot of her Regency cant from Egan. ‘Dun Territory,’ for example, (which I know I’ve seen in Heyer) has no roots in cant at all (again – this is false authority on my part, I just mean, I can’t find it in earlier word lists), and seems to be taken directly from Life in London.
My methodology was pretty basic: I used words that were interesting, funny or curious, and which I felt I could contextualise in a way that would illuminate their meaning, even if the word itself was unfamiliar. I also tried to stick to the same word pool so that readers could get comfortable with the cant, rather than constantly being bombarded by new words to learn.
As ever, I hoped it worked.
Because I’d been so (unnecessarily) worried about Dil’s narrative voice, I’d originally decided to present Prosperity as a found narrative: his journal pages, collated, edited and glossed by an academic I named Professor Chlodwig Plume (of Merton College, Oxford), for reasons that seemed entertaining at the time. But given what I imagined of this stuffy Victorian scholar, I couldn’t imagine he’d be very comfortable with the racier aspects of Piccadilly’s manuscript, so I conceived the idea of a further edition compiled by a young suffragette called Isabella Flyte.
Yes. Sometimes one can be overly meta.
*throws devil horns* Totally meta. Cough.
So essentially you had … multiple voices fighting for precedence in the book, Plume’s, Flyte’s and Dil’s, and I was essentially telling a second story in footnotes. It was kind of a fun device in some respects, but it was also stupid. And got in the way.
But here are the dueling forewords, mainly for curiosity’s sake and also because I think I give good academic.
Lady Isabella’s Letter
Most esteemed ladies of the South Kensington Historical Society,
I have recently had the great good fortune to be allowed access to the original manuscript pages of a book cherished in our collective bosom for more years than vanity permits me to remember – I speak of none other than the journal of that beloved, latter day Tristram Shandy known only as Piccadilly whose journal remains one of the few contemporary accounts of Prosperity’s Fall in 1863. I need not tell you what an extraordinary privilege it was for me to see with my own eyes the original, as it were, text – which comprises a tattered assortment of unnumbered scraps and papers, some of which have sustained water and fire damage, and many of which seem to be falling victim to the merciless march of time.
Indeed, I found myself thinking once again how indebted we are to the work of scholars such as Professor Chlodwig Plume in making Piccadilly’s journal available to the public. However, you can imagine my surprise when, on sitting down with the original pages, I soon discovered that Professor Plume’s annotated 1904 edition, published by Oxford University Press and gen’rally believed to be definitive, contains substantial alterations and omissions.
In particular, Professor Plume has seen fit to expurgate several scenes between the recidivist known as Milord and the defrocked priest Ruben Crowe, which I believe to be of absolutely vital historical interest. Another equally bewildering modification is the transformation of Miss Jane Grey from an opiate inebriate, sapphist libertine to that tepid paragon of pristine womanly virtue so lauded by certain (predominantly male) historians of this period. I was also somewhat surprised to learn that the aethermancer, Byron Kae, to whom the pronoun ‘he’ is applied in the published book, is assigned no gender in Piccadilly’s original text.
I have therefore dedicated myself to the collation of what I believe to be the complete and correct manuscript, incorporating Professor Plume’s invaluable footnotes as appropriate alongside my own annotations. I have also taken the liberty of replacing those words that the Professor’s sense of delicacy led him to restrict. I believe, ladies, that we may bear witness to the words ‘God’ or ‘bugger’ without requiring the middle letter to be blanked out. I will be commissioning a limited run of this truly faithful edition of the journal but, in the meantime, I would welcome any comments you may have.
Yours, with warmest wishes,
Lady Isabella Flyte
Professor Plume’s Preface to the 1904 Edition
The specific aim of this edition of the writings of the journalist known only as Piccadilly is to provide, for the first time, a reliable text of all the assorted pages which antecedent scholarly studies have shown are probably authentic. With the text thus centralised, the explanatory material included in footnotes is limited to what the intelligent reader needs to interpret the dialect in which he writes. Although Piccadilly’s canon has now been established as securely as it is ever likely to be, questions continue to be raised regarding the authenticity of many of the pages ascribed to him, and I have excluded from this edition any parts of the collated manuscript deemed spurious by forensic graphologists. Although it is not possible to establish a precise date of composition for most of the pages, I have adopted the most logical chronological arrangement suggested by the text itself. Some elements of punctuation, spelling and capitalization have been modernised as the original pages exhibit a bewildering and largely meaningless array of styles, approaches and treatments. It has, however, seemed desirable to retain certain linguistic peculiarities.
To Oxford University, and above all to the late Head of the History Faculty Professor Randolf G. Maxwell, I am deeply grateful, most particularly for the alleviation of my teaching and examining duties which allowed me to retire to the South of France and devote myself to the completion of this work. Similar obligation is owed to the Universities of Cambridge, Gaslight and University College London. The suggestions of Arthur Bollingbroke and Jonleigh Shimmin resulted in substantial improvements to several of the explanatory notes. To the staff of the Bodleian Library I am indebted for many acts of assistance. And for assistance in connection with previously unpublished manuscript pages in private collections I would like to thank the following: the Duke of Davenport, the British Museum, the Victorian and Albert Museum, Lambeth Palace Library, All Souls College Oxford, Magdalen College Oxford, Cambridge University Library, St Johns College Cambridge, University of Gaslight Library, County Archives Durham, the National Library of Scotland, Nationalbibliothek Vienna, Folger Shakespeare Library.
Merton College Oxford, 1904
Sooo…Prosperity has been through the editing mill so many times, it’s practically sawdust.
I am, however, very happy with the way it finally turned out. Weirdly enough, I don’t actually feel I compromised on the voice. I think it’s still there, just as clearly, just more accessibly.
As a curiosity, I present various drafts of the opening paragraphs. Err, obviously, the represent pieces of work in progress – so please don’t stare so hard at my naked writing that it gets embarrassed and self-conscious about itself.
I ain’t ne’er bin one fer truth-tellin’ ‘n’ wot-ave-ye ‘n’ that nobby shite ‘bout wot yer father was nam’d ‘n’ where y’ was squeez’d out int’ th’ world, like as not yowlin’ like a whole bag o’ tibbies ‘n’ wiv prob’ly less dignity, but this ‘ere tale wot I’m tellin’ ain’t yer ev’ryday moonshine.
See, this begins wiv a town call’d Prosperity.
An’ it don’t matter how I came t’ be there, ‘cos th’ thing ‘bout Prosperity was ev’rybody was goin’. Leastways ev’rybody wiv nowt t’ stay put fer or folks wiv sommat t’ pike from ‘n’ them as rather’d go clutchin’ at dreams i’ th’ sky’n turn their forepaws t’ honest graft. Tho’ not t’ say ‘twas all varlets ‘n’ chancers ‘cos it ain’t like I e’er met a fat cove bin all ‘I reckon I got enough o’ this chink right about now.’
Time was I thought m’self mightsome flash t’ th’ ways o’ th’ world but in Prosperity there ain’t no truth left but one ‘n’ th’ name o’ that homegrown godthing is greed. Milord would say: “Wanting is the greatest weakness of the human heart. Learn to want nothing, and you shall know freedom.” An’ Ruben’d give one of ‘em dry looks ‘n’ mebbe say sommat like fer that price freedom didn’t seem worth th’ cost, ‘cos how was you s’ppos’d t’ enjoy it. But it didn’t matter, none of it really matter’d ‘cos ev’rybody knew Milord hanker’d after Ruben like ‘twas burnin’ ‘im up from th’ inside out, ‘bout twenty times worse’n th’ dust cloggin’ up ‘is lungs.
But that’s gettin’ ahead.
I ain’t ne’er bin one fer truth-tellin and all that shite about what your father was called and where you was squeezed yowlin out your mother. But this tale what I’m tellin ain’t your everyday moonshine[i].
See, this begins wiv a town called Prosperity.
And it don’t matter how I came t’ be there cos the thing about Prosperity was everybody was goin. Leastways, everybody wiv nowt t’ stay put fer or folks wiv sommat t’ run from. And them who’d rather go clutchin at dreams in the sky than turn their forepaws t’ honest graft. Though not t’ say twas all varlets and chancers cos there was fat coves[ii] too, chink[iii] begettin chink the way it does.
Time was I thought m’self pretty flash[iv] t’ the ways of the world but in Prosperity there weren’t no truth left but one. And the name of that homegrown godthing was greed. Milord used t’ say: “Wanting is the greatest weakness of the human heart. Learn to want nothing, and you shall know freedom.” And Ruben would give him a dry look and mebbe say sommat like: “Freedom doesn’t seem worth the cost at such a price.” And I did wonder how you was supposed to enjoy bein free wiv nowt left to want. But it didn’t matter, none of it really mattered, cos everybody knew Milord wanted Ruben, and that was burnin him up from the inside out, worse than the dust in his lungs.
But that’s gettin ahead.
I ain’t ne’er bin one fer truth-tellin and all that shite about what your father was called and where you was squeezed yowlin out your mother. But this tale what I’m tellin ain’t your everyday moonshine.
See, this begins wiv a town called Prosperity.
Which I reckon you might’ve heard of, what wiv it droppin out the sky like the apocalypse come early. Twas all o’er the papers and now tis all o’er the history books, but there’s still sommat ain’t hardly anybody got but me. And that’s the truth of what went down in 1863.
Hard t’ believe its only bin a handful of years since then. Feels like lifetimes of the world.
But since we ain’t e’en bin properly introduced, let’s start wiv small things cos truth and me ain’t exactly what you’d call cater cousins. In fact, I’d go so far as t’ say we’ve a long history of bein practically estranged.
Cos where I come from ain’t no place fer truth or aught else precious. I’m Gaslight born and Gaslight bred, most literalwise, cos twas the gutter that nursed Piccadilly through the earliest days of rememberin. And them as don’t live in the Stews call that twisting dark the Lost City. It’s where folks go when the world don’t want em.
I ain’t never been one for truth-telling and all that shite about what your father was called and where you was squeezed yowling out your mother. But this tale what I’m telling ain’t your everyday moonshine.
See, this begins with a town called Prosperity.
Which I reckon you might’ve heard of, what with it dropping out the sky like the apocalypse come early. Twas all over the papers and now tis all over the history books, but there’s still sommat ain’t hardly anybody got but me, and that’s the truth of what went down in eighteen sixty three.
Hard to believe it’s only been a handful of years since then. Feels like lifetimes of the whole fucking world.
But since we ain’t even been properly introduced, let’s start with small things cos truth and me ain’t exactly what you’d call cater cousins. In fact, I’d go so far as to say we’ve a long history of being practically estranged. Cos where I come from ain’t no place for truth or aught else precious. I’m Gaslight born and Gaslight bred, most literalwise, cos twas the gutter that nursed Piccadilly through the earliest days of remembering. And them as don’t live in the Stews call that twisting dark the Lost City. It’s where folks go when the world don’t want them.
I ain’t never been one for truth-telling, and all that shite about what your father was called, and where you was squeezed yowling out your mother – but this ’ere tale ain’t your everyday moonshine.
See, it begins with a town called Prosperity.
Which I reckon you might’ve heard of, what with it dropping out the sky like the apocalypse come early. Twas all over the papers and now tis all over the history books, but there’s still sommat ain’t hardly anybody got but me, and that’s the truth of what went down in 1863.
Hard to believe it’s only been a handful of years since then. Feels like lifetimes of the whole fucking world.
But since we ain’t even been properly introduced, let’s start with small things cos like I say truth and me ain’t exactly what you’d call cater cousins. In fact, I’d go so far as to say we’ve a long history of being practically estranged. Cos where I come from ain’t no place for truth or nowt else precious. I’m Gaslight born and Gaslight bred, most literalwise, cos twas the gutter that nursed Piccadilly through the earliest days of remembering. And them as don’t live in the Stews call that twisting dark the Lost City. Tis where folks go when the world don’t want ’em.
I ain’t never been one for truth-telling, and all that shite about what your father was called, and where you was squeezed yowling out your mother—but this ’ere tale ain’t your everyday moonshine.
See, it begins with a town called Prosperity.
It don’t really matter how I came to be there cos back in them days, everybody was going. Way I heard it, the rush started cos of this one cull who got himself an airship and took to the skies over Gaslight. He went up there with pockets full of sweet fuck-all, and came down again with enough phlogiston to light up England for a year. Made him flusher than that Greek bugger what I read about.
And that’s when folks started buying up the sky, turning nowhere places like Prosperity into somewhere places. Leastways for the sorta folk who didn’t have nowt to stay put for, or sommat to run from. And them as rather’d go clutching at dreams than turn their forepaws to honest graft.
When I first rolled into town, there weren’t much in the ol’ brain box except turning the usual tricks and running the usual rigs. Cos me being Gaslight gutterborn, I ain’t precisely grained for the straight and narrow. Twasn’t long afore I got settled in. Few days after making slip, I had five fat culls—meaning them as possessing more money than sense—chasing their own tails in hopeless pursuit of Judith in the game of three-card-Monte I was running from the street corner.
 Gaslight variant of ‘tomcat’ circa 1830, tib-cat or tibby-cat, a female cat.
 Derived from the popular thieves cant expression ‘to be hanged by moneshyne’ meaning to be convicted without proper evidence, usage has since broadened to include any form of foolish or fanciful speech.
 Colloquial expression, popular among users of the cant, meaning to depart or hasten away. Cf bing.
 Typical thieves cant for ‘fellow’, ‘chap’ or ‘customer’. Fat was used variously to denote foolishness or wealth.
 One of many thieves cant terms for money, so called because it chinks in the pockets, cf. “The chinck of golde is such a pleasing crie.”
 I have devoted some effort to the study of the language, colloquially known as ‘the cant’ used during this period, and the usage of the word flash varies considerably across sources It can be used to describe knowledge in gen’ral, but often knowledge specific to the criminal underground, although it can have connotations of self-aggrandisement or performativeness. Here Piccadilly seems to be employing the word in its most gen’ral sense.
[i] Derived from the popular thieves cant expression ‘to be hanged by moneshyne’ meaning to be convicted without proper evidence, usage has since broadened to include any form of foolish or fanciful speech.
[ii] Typical thieves cant for ‘fellow’, ‘chap’ or ‘customer’. Fat was used variously to denote foolishness or wealth.
[iii] One of many thieves cant terms for money (such as blunt) so called because it chinks in the pockets, cf. “The chinck of golde is such a pleasing crie.”
[iv] I have devoted some effort to the study of the language, colloquially known as ‘the cant’ used during this period, and the usage of the word flash varies considerably across sources It can be used to describe knowledge in general, but often knowledge specific to the criminal underground, although it can have connotations of self-aggrandisement or performativeness. Here Piccadilly seems to be employing the word in its most general sense.
In the run up to Prosperity’s release, I did a daily Tweet of some of my favourite cant words and phrases. Here they are:
1st of October
First, a little common courtesy:
Cant: “How dost, my buff.”
Translation: “Hello, how do you do, friend.”
To know the language. “To patter flash”, is to be well-versed in the cant.
Also to understand. “I am flash to your meaning, my buff.”
QUEER COVE / FAMILY MAN: general terms for rogue
A DIMBER DAMBER FAMILY MAN: an Arch Rogue.
A CHOIR BIRD: an experienced thief who has sung in many cages (i.e. been to prison a lot).
ADMIRAL OF THE NARROW SEAS: one who – while afflicted with drunkenness – vomits into the lap of the unfortunate person sitting opposite.
MOTHERSWINKER: a term of disapprobation
Okay, I made this one up. To swink is OE, meaning to labour (sweatily)
Implying a baser meaning
CHITTERLINS: the bowels
Cant: “There is a rumpus among my chitterlins.”
Translation: I am not feeling very well.
BENDER: a way to ironically signify incredulity or dissention (SNIV can be used similarly)
Friend: We’ll split the blunt 70/30
You: “Certainly – bender!” (i.e. “That is an unreasonable suggestion, sir.”)
PUBLIC LEDGER: a prostitute.
i.e. one who is open to all parties
DINGABLE: anything considered worthless. A sharp might use this to refer to a mark they have cleaned out.
Or could you say it about a lover you intend to abandon. Tsk tsk.
10th of October
NOB IT: to act with such prudence and knowledge of the world as to prosper without any labour.
A useful term for a useful skill.
STASH: to put an end to a particular practice.
A thief determined to reform may declare that means he stash the business.
Synonyms: stow it, knife it, cheese it, cut it.
VENERABLE MONOSYLLABLE: female genitalia.
For them as too hoity-toity to say the other word.
BENE: good (as in bene darkmans – good evening)
Not to be confused with BENISH: foolish.
GENTLEMAN OF THREE INS.
A fellow in debt, in gaol and in danger.
The narrator of Prosperity, for example, being one Piccadilly of Gaslight, a dimber cove, and no mistaking.
ARBOR VITAE: the virile member.
“Casting glims o’er the dimber mort did stir the ol’ arbour vitae to a mightsome flourishing.”
RUM: a term of approbation.
Cant: Why, Mr Hall, that be a right rum nab you’re sporting.
Translation: I do like your hat, Mr Hall.
Another one I sort of made up, from OE meaning pleasing to the appetites.
So sexy rather than beautiful.
We need this word again.
SQUEEZE CRAB: a sour-face, diminutive personage.
MINE ARSE ON A BANDBOX. An answer to the offer of any thing inadequate to the purpose for which it is wanted, just as a bandbox would be if used for a seat.
BETWATTLED: confused, bewildered, generally confounded.
“When the foxy sharp bobbed me for the sixth time, I was fair betwattled.”
FRENCHIFIED: infected with venereal disease.
Because throughout history it has been perfectly acceptable to be racist against the French.
RANTALLION: One whose scrotum is so relaxed as to be longer than his penis.
I hope you all find many uses for this helpful word.
SQUARE: honest, the opposite of roguish.
Cant: I ain’t never found a square concern
Translation: I haven’t ever sought an honest job.
CIRCUMBENDIBUS: in a meandering, roundabout fashion, either directionally or linguistically.
“That Mr Dickens do and half tell his stories circumbendibusly.”
ATHANASIAN WENCH (also a QUICUNQUE VULT): a forward person, or prostitute. Term derived from the opening of the Athanasian Creed, usually translated as “whoever wants to.”