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Project Gutenberg // Public Domain
Project Gutenberg // Public Domain

Uncovering Thieves’ Cant, the Elizabethan Slang of the Underworld

Project Gutenberg // Public Domain
Project Gutenberg // Public Domain

In 1528, an anonymously published book titled Liber Vagatorum appeared in Germany. Later re-titled in English as the Book of Vagabonds and Beggars, it included a glossary of the mysterious slang that was spoken by the underclass at the time. The preface for this enigmatic book was penned by none other than theologian Martin Luther, who recalled being “cheated and befooled by such tramps and liars more than I wish to confess.” He also spent time underscoring “how mightily the devil rules in this world,” pointing to this slang, which was called “thieves’ cant” (also called beggars’ or rogues’ cant) as evidence.

There are manifold underground jargons among the world languages, but thieves’ cant is notable both for its inscrutable origins and its durability. Many different minority groups have been blamed for inventing it (yes, blamed, not credited), notably the Romani people—the group formerly known as gypsies. English writer Thomas Harman, in his 16th-century pamphlet A Caveat or Warning for Common Cursetors, called its authors “wretched, wyly, wandering vagabonds calling and naming themselves Egyptians, deeply dissembling and long hyding and covering their deep deceitful practices.” Martin Luther, meanwhile, bitterly attributed the invention of thieves’ cants to “the Jews.”

The truth is that no one is clear on who started it. All we know is that forms of thieves’ cant began popping up by the 13th century, in various languages in Europe, and were spoken by the lower class as a slang “to the end that their cozenings, knaveries and villainies might not so easily be perceived and known,” as 17th-century English author Samuel Rid wrote. Thomas Harman claimed that the slang was invented around the 1530s by someone who was “hanged all save the head.” What we do know for sure is that over time the language evolved—some say from Welsh Romani, although this too is disputed. It’s also called “peddler’s French," which might indicate a French connection, but is probably just the English insulting the French. Because the creators of cant are unknown and many of their words (deliberately) obfuscated, the roots of many words largely remain a mystery.

That’s what makes thieves’ cant a perfect example of a cryptolect: It’s a secretive jargon that was created specifically to exclude or confuse a particular group—in this case, the cops. Polari, a language spoken by gay Britons in the mid-20th century, is another example of a cryptolect, as is Boontling, which is still being spoken today in Boonville, California.

We still use some words from thieves' cant, including a few that might ring as solidly 20th-century to our ears. For example, phony, a favorite of Holden Caulfield’s in The Catcher in the Rye (1951), might come from fawney, which can be traced back to 1770 in England. A fawney rig was a common ruse wherein “a fellow drops a brass ring, double gilt, which he picks up before the party meant to be cheated, and to whom he disposes of it for less than its supposed, and ten times more than its real, value.” In this scam, the fawney is the ring, and it probably comes from the Irish word for ring: fáinne. A pratfall, wherein someone falls and lands on their butt, often for comedic effect (or sometimes just in reference to an embarrassing mistake), comes from prat, the cant word for buttocks. Stockings (and now any kind of underwear) are still sometimes called drawers, and a liar or cheat is still called a swindler. Other examples of cant that have survived the ages intact include pigeon (to mean a victim or a sucker), grease (meaning to bribe, as in to grease a palm), and left in the lurch (to be betrayed).

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Other words attributed to cant have relatively obvious origins, such as squeeze, meaning wine or liquor, or peel (to strip). Some have logical meanings once you know their arcane references, for example, myrmidon, which is a cant word for a judge and refers originally to a group of Thessalians who were led by Achilles at the siege of Troy, but later came to mean a hired goon. Meanwhile, other etymologies can only be guessed at, like mishtopper (a coat or petticoat) or Oliver, a nickname for the moon. Maybe you had to be there.

Once cant had been established, plenty of books were written that aimed to decode it. Possibly the most useful of these was written by François Villon. Celebrated today for his sardonic poetry, Villon was an itinerant thief and murderer with a predilection for drunken brawls who spent most of his life getting kicked out of various places in France. However, he also had a Master of Arts degree from the University of Paris and a gift for acrostics. Living and working in the mid-1400s, Villon’s poems were written in the early French-based cant. His 11 Ballades en Jargon shed a tiny bit of light on the code that had baffled the public, almost a century before Martin Luther and his anonymous co-author were writing about being befooled by tramps.

Although it’s been a while since folks were publishing books in cant, it still occasionally pops up in print. Beginning in 1978, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons included a little shout-out to thieves’ cant. If you played as a thief, you could speak thieves’ cant to prevent other players from knowing your plots and plans. (In later editions, thieves became rogues, but players still have the option to speak in cant.) An actual glossary wasn’t included in the AD&D manual—this was just an abstract obfuscation—but they still get props for historical accuracy.

Fortunately for us, there are plenty of resources on cant available today, including the thieves’ cant translator at lingojam and a downloadable online dictionary at the Internet Archive. Although the slang changed heavily over the years and from region to region, here’s a short glossary of selected words and phrases, if you want to pinch a few for your everyday speech. Your friends might not understand you, but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?

rum: fine, good, valuable
jukrum: license, or permission to operate
lullypriggers: thieves who steal wet clothes off of clotheslines
priggers of prancers: horse thieves
priggers of cacklers: hen thieves
onion: a signet ring or other seal
to ride a horse foaled by an acorn: to be hanged at the gallows
marriage-music: the crying of children
to draw the King's picture: to counterfeit money
zad: a very crooked person
picture frame: the gallows
babe in the wood: a rogue imprisoned in the stock or pillory
abbott’s teeth: the chevaux de frise along the top of the wall around King’s Bench Prison in Southwark, London (once known as “Ellenborough’s teeth”)
progg: victuals
coney-catcher (sometimes conny-catcher): a thief, from coney, a nickname for a rabbit raised for the table, referring to the tameness of one’s victim
billingsgate: profanity, from the London fish market of the same name, known for the crude language heard in its stalls
jobber-nott: a tall, stupid fellow
Irish apricots: potatoes
ace of spades: widow
Pontius Pilate: a pawnbroker
chunk o’ gin: diamond
chunk o’ brandy: ruby
berry wine: sapphire
academy: brothel
fortune teller: judge
frummagemmed: strangled or hanged
kate: lock-picker
mort: woman
oak: rich man
rhino: money
vowel: to write an I.O.U.

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Instead of Lighting Fireworks, People in This Chinese Village Celebrate by Flinging Molten Iron
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Fireworks are a cultural symbol in China, but they weren't always easy to obtain. In a village in Yu County, China, people use a 500-year-old trick to achieve the same effect as fireworks with cheaper pyrotechnics.

This video from Great Big Story highlights the Chinese art of Da Shuhua, or splattering molten iron against walls to produce a fireworks-like shower of sparks. It started in the village of Nuanquan in the 16th century as a way for poor residents to imitate the expensive fireworks shows enjoyed by rich people in different parts of the country. Blacksmiths noticed that molten iron burst into dazzling sparks whenever it hit the ground and thought to recreate this phenomenon on a much larger scale. The townspeople loved it and began donating their scrap metal to create even grander displays.

Today, Da Shuhua is more than just a cheap alternative to regular fireworks: It's a cherished tradition to the people of Nuanquan. The village remains the only place in China to witness the art as it was done centuries ago—the people who practice it even wear the same traditional cotton and sheepskin garments to protect their skin from the 2900°F drops of metal flying through the air. As Wang De, who's been doing Da Shuhua for 30 years, says in the video below, "If you wear firefighter suits, it just doesn't feel right."

[h/t Great Big Story]

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10 Radiant Facts About Marie Curie
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock

Born Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Poland in 1867, Marie Curie grew up to become one of the most noteworthy scientists of all time. Her long list of accolades is proof of her far-reaching influence, but not every stride she made in the fields of chemistry, physics, and medicine was recognized with an award. Here are some facts you might not know about the iconic researcher.

1. HER PARENTS WERE TEACHERS.

Maria Skłodowska was the fifth and youngest child of two Polish educators. Her parents placed a high value on learning and insisted all their children—even their daughters—receive a quality education at home and at school. Maria received extra science training from her father, and when she graduated from high school at age 15, she was first in her class.

2. SHE HAD TO SEEK OUT ALTERNATIVE EDUCATION FOR WOMEN.

After collecting her high school diploma, Maria had hoped to study at the University of Warsaw with her sister, Bronia. Because the school didn't accept women, the siblings instead enrolled at the Flying University, a Polish college that welcomed female students. It was still illegal for women to receive higher education at the time so the institution was constantly changing locations to avoid detection from authorities. In 1891 she moved to Paris to live with her sister, where she enrolled at the Sorbonne to continue her education.

3. SHE'S THE ONLY PERSON TO WIN NOBEL PRIZES IN TWO SEPARATE SCIENCES.

Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1902.
Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1902.
Agence France Presse, Getty Images

In 1903, Marie Curie made history when she won the Nobel Prize in physics with her husband, Pierre, and with physicist Henri Becquerel for their work on radioactivity, making her the first woman to receive the honor. The second Nobel Prize she took home in 1911 was even more historic. With that win in the chemistry category, she became the first person of any gender to win the award twice. She remains the only person to ever receive Nobel Prizes for two different sciences.

4. SHE ADDED TWO ELEMENTS TO THE PERIODIC TABLE.

The second Nobel Prize she received recognized her discovery and research of two elements: radium and polonium. The former element was named for the Latin word for "ray" and the latter was a nod to her home country, Poland.

5. NOBEL PRIZE-WINNING RUNS IN HER FAMILY.

Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, circa 1940.
Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, circa 1940.
Central Press, Hulton Archive // Getty Images

When Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, won their Nobel Prize in 1903, their daughter Irène was only 6 years old. She would grow up to follow in her parents' footsteps by jointly winning the Nobel Prize for chemistry with her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, in 1935. They were recognized for their discovery of "artificial" radioactivity, a breakthrough made possible by Irène's parents years earlier. Marie and Pierre's other son-in-law, Henry Labouisse, who married their younger daughter, Ève Curie, accepted a Nobel Prize for Peace on behalf of UNICEF, of which he was the executive director, in 1965. This brought the family's total up to five.

6. SHE DID HER MOST IMPORTANT WORK IN A SHED.

The research that won Marie Curie her first Nobel Prize required hours of physical labor. In order to prove they had discovered new elements, she and her husband had to produce numerous examples of them by breaking down ore into its chemical components. Their regular labs weren't big enough to accommodate the process, so they moved their work into an old shed behind the school where Pierre worked. According to Curie, the space was a hothouse in the summer and drafty in the winter, with a glass roof that didn't fully protect them from the rain. After the famed German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald visited the Curies' shed to see the place where radium was discovered, he described it as being "a cross between a stable and a potato shed, and if I had not seen the worktable and items of chemical apparatus, I would have thought that I was been played a practical joke."

7. HER NOTEBOOKS ARE STILL RADIOACTIVE.

Marie Curie's journals
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

When Marie was performing her most important research on radiation in the early 20th century, she had no idea the effects it would have on her health. It wasn't unusual for her to walk around her lab with bottles of polonium and radium in her pockets. She even described storing the radioactive material out in the open in her autobiography. "One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night; we then perceived on all sides the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles of capsules containing our products[…] The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights."

It's no surprise then that Marie Curie died of aplastic anemia, likely caused by prolonged exposure to radiation, in 1934. Even her notebooks are still radioactive a century later. Today they're stored in lead-lined boxes, and will likely remain radioactive for another 1500 years.

8. SHE OFFERED TO DONATE HER MEDALS TO THE WAR EFFORT.

Marie Curie had only been a double-Nobel Laureate for a few years when she considered parting ways with her medals. At the start of World War I, France put out a call for gold to fund the war effort, so Curie offered to have her two medals melted down. When bank officials refused to accept them, she settled for donating her prize money to purchase war bonds.

9. SHE DEVELOPED A PORTABLE X-RAY TO TREAT SOLDIERS.

Marie Curie circa 1930
Marie Curie, circa 1930.
Keystone, Getty Images

Her desire to help her adopted country fight the new war didn't end there. After making the donation, she developed an interest in x-rays—not a far jump from her previous work with radium—and it didn't take her long to realize that the emerging technology could be used to aid soldiers on the battlefield. Curie convinced the French government to name her Director of the Red Cross Radiology Service and persuaded her wealthy friends to fund her idea for a mobile x-ray machine. She learned to drive and operate the vehicle herself and treated wounded soldiers at the Battle of the Marne, ignoring protests from skeptical military doctors. Her invention was proven effective at saving lives, and ultimately 20 "petite Curies," as the x-ray machines were called, were built for the war.

10. SHE FOUNDED CENTERS FOR MEDICAL RESEARCH.

Following World War I, Marie Curie embarked on a different fundraising mission, this time with the goal of supporting her research centers in Paris and Warsaw. Curie's radium institutes were the site of important work, like the discovery of a new element, francium, by Marguerite Perey, and the development of artificial radioactivity by Irène and Frederic Joliot-Curie. The centers, now known as Institut Curie, are still used as spaces for vital cancer treatment research today.

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