Cache-Control: public, max-age=1024000 Sources for 18th Century and Regency Thieves Cant

Sources for Cant and Slang Terms

This information is taken mostly from the Cassell's Dictionary of Slang by Jonathan Green (2nd edition, Weidenfeld and Nicholson 2005).

The first stand-alone dictionary of canting terms (as opposed to glossaries in other works) is A New Dictionary of the Terms ancient and modern of the Canting Crew, written by the anonymous "B.E., Gent". and published in 1698. Every slang and canting dictionary of the next 125 years is derived (if not outright plagiarised) from this work with new terms being added as the later authors thought appropriate. (See, however, Green's list of 18th century glossaries (p. xiii) which are not necessarily so derived).

Over the next forty years we have:

  • 1719: Thieves' New Canting Dictionary in Captain Alexander Smith's History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen.
  • 1725: New Canting Dictionary by an anonymous author.
  • 1737: "Collection of Canting Words" in Bailey's Universal Etymological English dictionary.
  • 1750 et seq: the glossary in Life of the self-styled gypsy king Bamfylde Moore Carew is essentially B.E.'s work

A significant expansion of B.E.'s text was made in The Classical dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published by Captain Francis Grose in 1785. The work was substantially expanded for a second edition in 1788 and a third in 1796. While it uses B.E.'s material as a base this is a new and original piece of lexicography and valuable as such.

In 1811 it was pirated by "a member of the whip club" assisted by several others, one of whom went by the colourful name of "Hell-Fire Dick". Known as the Lexicon Balatronicum it was effectively the fourth edition of The Classical dictionary and was followed in 1823 by the fifth, edited by Pierce Egan.

On this site I have used the Collection of Canting Words from Bailey's 1737 dictionary to represent the core of B.E.'s work and the 1811 Lexicon Balatronicum for Grose. The choice was made not for academic reasons but because both had already been transcribed and the text made available. I can only plead laziness as an excuse.

The Collection of Canting Words is available online on a one-word-per-page basis at The Lexicon Balatronicum is also available at and the complete original text can be found at Project Gutenberg.

In addition to the above, I have also used the glossary from the Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux published in 1819. Vaux was an English criminal transported to Australia in the early 19th century. He provides a glossary of about 700 cant terms, valuable because they are not derived from B.E. and thus often different explanations.