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).

Project Gutenberg // Public Domain

 
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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Henry Guttmann, Getty Images
14 Facts About Mathew Brady
Henry Guttmann, Getty Images
Henry Guttmann, Getty Images

When you think of the Civil War, the images you think of are most likely the work of Mathew Brady and his associates. One of the most successful early photographers in American history, Brady was responsible for bringing images of the Civil War to a nation split in two—a project that would ultimately be his undoing. Here are some camera-ready facts about Mathew Brady.

1. HIS EARLY LIFE MIGHT BE AN INTENTIONAL MYSTERY.

Most details of Brady’s early life are unknown. He was born in either 1822 or 1823 to Andrew and Julia Brady, who were Irish. On pre-war census records and 1863 draft forms Brady stated that he was born in Ireland, but some historians speculate he changed his birthplace to Johnsburg, New York, after he became famous due to anti-Irish sentiment.

Brady had no children, and though he is believed to have married a woman named Julia Handy in 1851, there is no official record of the marriage.

2. HE TOOK PHOTOGRAPHY CLASSES FROM THE INVENTOR OF MORSE CODE.

When he was 16 or 17, Brady followed artist William Page to New York City after Page had given him some drawing lessons. But that potential career was derailed when he got work as a clerk in the A.T. Stewart department store [PDF] and began manufacturing leather (and sometimes paper) cases for local photographers, including Samuel F.B. Morse, the inventor of Morse Code.

Morse, who had learned the early photographic method of creating Daguerreotypes from Parisian inventor Louis Daguerre in 1839, brought the method back to the United States and opened a studio in 1840. Brady was one of his early students.

3. HE SET UP SHOP IN NEW YORK AND BECAME THE GO-TO PHOTOGRAPHER.

Brady eventually took what he learned from Morse and opened a daguerreotype portrait studio at the corner of Broadway and Fulton Street in New York in 1844, earning the nickname “Brady of Broadway.” His renown grew due to a mix of his knack for enticing celebrities to sit for his camera—James Knox Polk and a young Henry James (with his father, Henry James Sr.) both sat for him—as well as a flair for the dramatic: In 1856, he placed an ad in the New York Daily Tribune urging readers to sit for a portrait that warned, “You cannot tell how soon it may be too late.”

His rapidly-expanding operation forced him to open a branch of his studio at 625 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., in 1849, and then move his New York studio uptown to 785 Broadway in 1860.

4. HE ACHIEVED WORLDWIDE FAME.

In 1850, Brady published The Gallery of Illustrious Americans, a collection of lithographs based on his daguerreotypes of a dozen famous Americans (he had intended to do 24, but due to costs, that never happened). The volume, and a feature profile [PDF] in the inaugural 1851 issue of the Photographic Art-Journal that described Brady as the “fountain-head” of a new artistic movement, made him a celebrity even outside of America. “We are not aware that any man has devoted himself to [the Daguerreotype art] with so much earnestness, or expended upon its development so much time and expense," the profile opined. "He has merited the eminence he has acquired; for, from the time he first began to devote himself to it, he has adhered to his early purpose with the firmest resolution, and the most unyielding tenacity.” Later that year, at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London, Brady was awarded one of three gold medals for his daguerreotypes.

5. HE PHOTOGRAPHED EVERY PRESIDENT FROM JOHN QUINCY ADAMS TO WILLIAM MCKINLEY ... WITH ONE EXCEPTION.

The one that got away was William Henry Harrison—he died only a month after his inauguration in 1841.

6. ONE OF HIS PORTRAITS INTRODUCED HONEST ABE TO THE COUNTRY.

When Abraham Lincoln campaigned for president in 1860, he was dismissed as an odd-looking country bumpkin. But Brady’s stately portrait of the candidate, snapped after he addressed a Republican audience at Cooper Union in New York, effectively solidified Lincoln as a legitimate candidate in the minds of the American populace. (After he was elected, Lincoln supposedly told a friend, “Brady and the Cooper Union speech made me president.”) It was one of the first times such widespread campaign photography was used to support a presidential candidate.

7. HIS STUDIO’S WORK ENDED UP ON TWO VERSIONS OF THE $5 BILL.

A researcher holding one of America's most priceless negatives, the glass plate made by famous civil war photographer Mathew Brady of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 just before he was assassinated.
Three Lions, Getty Images

On February 9, 1864, Lincoln sat for a portrait session with Anthony Berger, the manager of Brady’s Washington studio. The session yielded both images of Lincoln that would go on the modern iterations of the $5 bill.

The first, from a three-quarter length portrait featuring Lincoln seated and facing right, was used on the bill design from 1914 to 2000. When U.S. currency was redesigned that year, government officials chose another image Berger took at Brady’s studio of Lincoln. This time, the president is seen facing left with his head turned more to the left.

According to Lincoln historian Lloyd Ostendorf, when the president was sitting for portraits, “Whenever Lincoln posed, a dark melancholy settled over his features. He put on what Mrs. Lincoln called his ‘photographer’s face.’ There is no camera study which shows him laughing, for such an attitude, unfortunately, was impossible when long exposures were required.”

8. OTHER PEOPLE ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR SOME OF HIS BEST-KNOWN WORK.

At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Brady decided to use his many employees and his own money to attempt to make a complete photographic record of the conflict, dispatching 20 photographers to capture images in different war zones. Alexander Gardner and Timothy H. O’Sullivan were both in the field for Brady. Both of them eventually quit because Brady didn’t give individual credit.

Brady likely did take photos himself on battlefields like Bull Run and Gettysburg (although not necessarily during the actual battle). The photographer later boasted, “I had men in all parts of the army, like a rich newspaper.”

9. HE HAD BAD EYESIGHT.

Brady's eyes had plagued him since childhood—in his youth, he was reportedly nearly blind, and he wore thick, blue-tinted glasses as an adult. Brady's real reason for relying less and less on his own expertise might have been because of his failing eyesight, which had started to deteriorate in the 1850s.

10. HE HELPED REVOLUTIONIZE COMBAT PHOTOGRAPHY.

War photographer Mathew Brady's buggy was converted into a mobile darkroom and travelling studio, or, Whatizzit Wagon, during the American Civil War.
Mathew B Brady, Getty Images

The group of Brady photographers that scoured the American north and south to capture images of the Civil War traveled in what became known as “Whatizzit Wagons,” which were horse-drawn wagons filled with chemicals and mobile darkrooms so they could get close to battles and develop photographs as quickly as possible.

Brady’s 1862 New York gallery exhibit, "The Dead of Antietam,” featured then-unseen photographs of some of the 23,000 victims of the war’s bloodiest day, which shocked American society. “Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war," a New York Times reviewer wrote. "If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”

11. HE USED A FREEBIE TO CONVINCE GENERALS TO LET HIM PHOTOGRAPH THE WAR.

Brady and his associates couldn't just wander out onto the battlefield with cameras—the photographer needed to obtain permission. So he set up a portrait session with Winfield Scott, the Union general in charge of the Army. The story goes that as he photographed the general—who was posed shirtless as a Roman warrior—Brady laid out his plan to send his fleet of photographers to tell the visual story of the war unlike any previous attempts in history. Then the photographer gifted the general some ducks. Scott was finally convinced, and he approved Brady’s plan in a letter to General Irvin McDowell. (Scott's Roman warrior portrait is, unfortunately, now lost.)

12. HE WAS BLAMED FOR UNION BATTLE LOSSES.

Brady’s first foray into documenting the Civil War was the First Battle of Bull Run. Though he had approved of Brady's plan, General McDowell did not appreciate the photographers' presence during the battle.

Brady himself was supposedly near the front lines when the fighting began, and quickly became separated from his companions. During the battle, he was forced to take shelter in nearby woods, and slept there overnight on a bag of oats. He eventually met back up with the Army and made his way to Washington, where rumors swelled that his equipment caused a panic that was responsible for the Union’s defeat at the battle. “Some pretend, indeed, that it was the mysterious and formidable-looking instrument that produced the panic!” one observer noted. “The runaways, it is said, mistook it for the great steam gun discharging 500 balls a minute, and took to their heels when they got within its focus!”

13. HE DIDN’T JUST PHOTOGRAPH THE UNION SIDE.

Before, after, and occasionally during the Civil War, Brady and Co. also photographed members of the Confederate side, such as Jefferson Davis, P. G. T. Beauregard, Stonewall Jackson, Albert Pike, James Longstreet, James Henry Hammond, and Robert E. Lee after he returned to Richmond following his surrender at Appomattox Court House. “It was supposed that after his defeat it would be preposterous to ask him to sit,” Brady said later. “I thought that to be the time for the historical picture.”

14. HIS CIVIL WAR PHOTOS ALSO MADE HIM POOR.

Union troops with a field gun during the American Civil War.
Mathew Brady, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“My wife and my most conservative friends had looked unfavorably upon this departure from commercial business to pictorial war correspondence,” Brady told an interviewer in 1891. Their instincts were right.

Brady invested nearly $100,000 of his own money in the Civil War project in hopes that the government would buy his photo record of the war after it was all said and done. But once the Union prevailed, a public reeling from years of grueling conflict showed no interest in Brady's grim photos.

After the financial panic of 1873 he declared bankruptcy, and he lost his New York studio. The War Department eventually bought over 6000 negatives from Brady’s collection—which are now housed in the National Archives—for only $2840 total.

Despite being responsible for some of the most iconic images of the era, Brady never regained his financial footing, and he died alone in New York Presbyterian Hospital in 1896 after being hit by a streetcar.

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General Mills
10 Winning Facts about Wheaties
General Mills
General Mills

Famous for its vivid orange boxes featuring star athletes and its classic "breakfast of champions" tagline, Wheaties might be the only cereal that's better known for its packaging than its taste. The whole wheat cereal has been around since the 1920s, becoming an icon not just of the breakfast aisle, but the sports and advertising worlds, too. Here are 10 winning facts about it.

1. IT WAS INVENTED BY ACCIDENT.

The Washburn Crosby Company wasn't initially in the cereal business. At the time, the Minnesota-based company—which became General Mills in 1928—primarily sold flour. But in 1921, the story goes, a dietitian in Minneapolis spilled bran gruel on a hot stove. The bran hardened into crispy, delicious flakes, and a new cereal was born. In 1924, the Washburn Crosby Company began selling a version of the flakes as a boxed cereal it called Washburn's Gold Medal Whole Wheat Flakes. A year later, after a company-wide contest, the company changed the name to Wheaties.

2. ITS JINGLE FEATURED A SINGING UNDERTAKER AND A COURT BAILIFF.

Wheaties sales were slow at first, but the Washburn Crosby Company already had a built-in advertising platform: It owned the Minneapolis radio station WCCO. Starting on December 24, 1926, the station began airing a jingle for the cereal sung by a barbershop quartet called the Wheaties Quartet. The foursome sang "Have You Tried Wheaties" live over the radio every week, earning $15 (about $200 today) per performance. In addition to their weekly singing gig, the men of the Wheaties Quartet all also had day jobs: One was an undertaker, one was a court bailiff, one worked in the grain industry, and one worked in printing. The ad campaign eventually went national, helping boost Wheaties sales across the country and becoming an advertising legend.

3. WHEATIES HAS BEEN TIED TO SPORTS SINCE ALMOST THE BEGINNING.

Carl Lewis signs a Wheaties box with his image on it for a young boy.
Track and field Olympic medalist Carl Lewis
Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

Wheaties has aligned itself with the sports world since its early days. In 1927, Wheaties bought ad space at Minneapolis's Nicollet Park, home to a minor league baseball team called the Millers, and in 1933, the cereal brand started sponsoring the team's game-day radio broadcasts on WCCO. Eventually, Wheaties baseball broadcasts expanded to 95 different radio stations, covering teams all over the country and further cementing its association with the sport. Since then, generations of endorsements from athletes of all stripes have helped sell consumers on the idea that eating Wheaties can make them strong and successful just like their favorite players. The branding association has been so successful that appearing on a Wheaties box has itself become a symbol of athletic achievement.

4. WHEATIES HELPED KICK-START RONALD REAGAN'S ACTING CAREER.

In the 1930s, a young sports broadcaster named Ronald Reagan was working at a radio station in Des Moines, Iowa, narrating Wheaties-sponsored Chicago Cubs and White Sox games. As part of this job, Reagan went to California to visit the Cubs' spring training camp in 1937. While he was there, he also did a screen test at Warner Bros. The studio ended up offering him a seven-year contract, and later that year, he appeared in his first starring role as a radio commentator in Love Is On The Air.

5. ATHLETES' PHOTOS DIDN'T ALWAYS APPEAR ON THE FRONT OF BOXES.

Three Wheaties boxes featuring Michael Phelps
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Although a Wheaties box wouldn't seem complete without an athlete's photo on it today, the cereal didn't always feature athletes front and center. In the early years, the boxes had photos of athletes like baseball legend Lou Gehrig (the first celebrity to be featured, in 1934) on the back or side panels of boxes. Athletes didn't start to appear on the front of the box until 1958, when the cereal featured Olympic pole vaulter Bob Richards.

6. THE FIRST WOMAN ON A WHEATIES BOX WAS A PILOT.

Former Track and Field Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersey stands with a poster of her new Wheaties box after it was unveiled in 2004.
Former Track and Field Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersey stands with a poster of her new Wheaties box after it was unveiled in 2004.
Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton became the first woman to appear on the front of a Wheaties box in 1984, but women did appear elsewhere on the box in the brand's early years. The first was pioneering aviator and stunt pilot Elinor Smith. Smith, whose picture graced the back of the box in 1934, set numerous world aviation records for endurance and altitude in the 1920s and 1930s.

7. IT USED TO HAVE A MASCOT.

Though we now associate Wheaties with athletes rather than an animal mascot, the cereal did have the latter during the 1950s. In an attempt to appeal to children, Wheaties adopted a puppet lion named Champy (short for "Champion") as the brand's mascot. Champy and his puppet friends sang about the benefits of Wheaties in commercials that ran during The Mickey Mouse Club, and kids could order their own Champy hand puppets for 50 cents (less than $5 today) if they mailed in Wheaties box tops.

8. MICHAEL JORDAN IS THE WHEATIES KING.

Of all the athletes who have graced the cover of a Wheaties box, basketball superstar Michael Jordan takes the cake for most appearances. He's been featured on the box 18 times, both alone and with the Chicago Bulls. He also served as a spokesperson for the cereal, appearing in numerous Wheaties commercials in the '80s and '90s.

9. FANS ONCE GOT THE CHANCE TO PICK A WHEATIES STAR.

MMA star Anthony Pettis on the front of a Wheaties box.
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The public hasn't often gotten a chance to weigh in on who will appear on the Wheaties box. But in 2014, Wheaties customers got to decide for the first time which athlete would be featured nationally. Called the Wheaties NEXT Challenge, the contest allowed people to vote for the next Wheaties Champion by logging their workouts on an app platform called MapMyFitness. Every workout of 30 minutes or more counted as one vote. Participants could choose between Paralympic sprinter Blake Leeper, motocross rider Ryan Dungey, mixed-martial-artist Anthony Pettis, lacrosse player Rob Pannell, or soccer player Christen Press. Pettis won, becoming the first MMA fighter to appear on the box in early 2015.

10. THERE WERE SEVERAL SPINOFFS THAT DIDN'T CATCH ON.

Three different Wheaties boxes featuring Tiger Woods sitting together on a table
Tiger Woods's Wheaties covers, 1998
Getty Images

Faced with declining sales, Wheaties introduced several spinoff cereals during the 1990s and early 2000s, including Honey Frosted Wheaties, Crispy Wheaties 'n Raisins, and Wheaties Energy Crunch. None of them sold very well, and they were all discontinued after a few years. The brand kept trying to expand its offerings, though. In 2009, General Mills introduced Wheaties Fuel, a version of the cereal it claimed was more tailored to men's dietary needs. Wheaties Fuel had more vitamin E and—unlike the original—no folic acid, which is commonly associated with women's prenatal supplements. Men didn't love Wheaties Fuel, though, and it was eventually discontinued too. Now, only the original "breakfast of champions" remains.

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