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Project Gutenberg // Public Domain

Uncovering Thieves’ Cant, the Elizabethan Slang of the Underworld

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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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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski
The Elements
9 Essential Facts About Carbon
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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski

How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.


It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.


It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.


While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.


It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.


May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.


Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.


Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.


American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.


Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

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Nicole Garner
How One Widow's Grief Turned a Small Town Into a Roadside Attraction
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Nicole Garner

Like many small towns, the southwest Missouri town of Nevada (pronounced not as the state, but as Nev-AY-duh) loves to tell tales. Incorporated in 1855, the 8000-person city was once a railroad hub and a former home to the outlaw Frank James, the elder brother of the more infamous Jesse James. But the one story Nevada residents love to tell above all others isn't about anyone famous. It's about an atypical above-ground grave in the town's oldest cemetery, the man who's interred there, and how he can't get any rest.

Scan of the Nevada Daily Mail from March 4, 1897.
Nevada Daily Mail; March 4, 1897.
Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

On March 4, 1897, the body of a young man was found near Nevada, Missouri, apparently struck by lightning. The local newspaper, the Nevada Daily Mail, printed the story of his death that evening right next to the news that William McKinley had been sworn in as president that day; a bold-faced headline declared "Death Came Without Warning," and noted “His Clothing Torn From His Body." A reporter at the scene described how the body, which was found around 11 a.m., was unrecognizable at first. Eventually the young man's father identified him as Frederick Alonzo "Lon" Dorsa, and the coroner determined that an umbrella was the cause of Lon's electrocution.

Lon left behind a widow whose name was never mentioned in newspapers; to this day, other printed versions of the Dorsas' story omit her identity. But she had a name—Neva Dorsa—and her grief led her to commission a singularly peculiar grave for her husband—one that would open her up to years worth of ridicule and also make their small town a roadside attraction.

A funeral announcement in the Daily Mail noted that undertakers had prepared Lon's body in a "neat casket" before a funeral service set for March 7. A follow-up article the next day read that Lon's funeral was widely attended, with a large procession to the cemetery and burial with military honors. His widow—whose name was determined from a marriage license filed at the Vernon County courthouse showing that Lon married a Neva Gibson on February 12, 1895—had gone from a newlywed to a single mother in just two years.

But, Lon's first interment was temporary. Neva had arranged a grand resting place for her husband, which wasn't ready in the short time between his death and the funeral. Modern newspaper retellings of Lon and Neva's tale say she ordered a large, above-ground enclosure from the Brophy Monument Company in Nevada. A large piece of stone—some accounts say marble while others suggest limestone or granite—was shipped in via railroad car. When it arrived, the stone was too heavy to move, so a local stonecutter spent more than a month chiseling away before the piece was light enough to be pulled away by horses. A wire story described the stone tomb as being "12 feet long, 4 feet wide and 5 feet high. Its weight at completion was 11,000 pounds."

Before Lon’s body was placed inside, Neva made a few key additions—specifically a hidden pane of glass that let her view her husband:

"A piece of stone, covered to represent a bible [sic], is the covering of the aperture. It can be lifted easily by the widow's hand and when Mrs. Dorsa's grief becomes unusually poignant, she goes to the cemetery and gazes for hours at a time upon the face of her dead husband."

The Daily Mail covered the second tomb's installation with morbid attention to detail on May 6, 1897, precisely two months after Lon was initially buried:

"When the grave was opened this morning the coffin looked as bright and new as when buried but it had water in it which had at one time nearly submerged the body. The remains looked perfectly natural and there were no evidences of decomposition having sat in—no odor whatover [sic]. A little mould [sic] had gathered about the roots of his hair and on the neck, otherwise the body looked as fresh as when buried."

The newspaper called the tomb a "stone sarcophagus" and noted that Neva was there to examine her husband's corpse and watch the reburial of his remains. There was likely no inkling from those present, or the community who read about it in that evening's paper, that Neva had designed the tomb with unexpected and usual features, like the pivoting stone Bible that would reveal Lon's face below when unlocked and moved.

Instead, the newspaper suggested that the "costly mousoleum [sic] provided for the reception of his remains is the tribute of her affection."

Lon Dorsa's grave.
Lon Dorsa's grave at Deepwood Cemetery in Nevada, Missouri.
Nicole Garner

Following Lon's re-interment, Neva managed her grief by visiting her deceased husband regularly. Her home was near his grave—the 1900 U.S. Census listed her as a 25-year-old widow living on south Washington Street in Nevada, the same street as the cemetery—and three years after her husband's death, she was employed as a dressmaker, working year-round to provide for their young children, Beatrice and Fred.

By 1905, a new wave of public scrutiny hit the Dorsa (sometimes spelled Dorsey) family when the details of Neva's specially designed, above-ground grave began circulating. It's not clear who reported the story first, but the Topeka Daily Capital, published across the Kansas border 150 miles from Nevada, published a piece, which eventually spread to The St. Louis Republic. Early that spring, the same story was printed in the Pittsburgh Press, a Chicago church publication called The Advance, and in the summer of 1906, a description of Lon Dorsa's crypt had made it nearly 1000 miles to the front page of the Staunton Spectator and Vindicator in Staunton, Virginia:

"The strangest tomb in America, if not in the world, is that which rest the remains of Lon Dorsa in Deepwood cemetery, Nevada, Mo. It is so constructed that the widow can look upon her deceased husband at will, by the turning of a key in a lock which holds a stone Bible just above the remains."

Articles at the time noted that Lon's remains were in an airtight tomb and that scientists supposedly told Mrs. Dorsa that her husband's body would be well-preserved in those conditions, but decomposition had already taken place: "It [the body] has turned almost black, but the general outline of the features remains unchanged."

According to a 1997 walking tour pamphlet of Deepwood Cemetery, it wasn't long before community members caught on that Neva visited the cemetery all too often: "Fascinated children hung about to watch the lady arrive in her buggy. If she saw them, she'd go after them with a whip, shrieking like a madwoman …" the guide stated. Eventually, "her family had the pivot removed and the Bible cemented down."

Local lore suggests that the publicity and Lon's deterioration drove Neva to insanity. Some say she ended up in an asylum and died soon after—a fairly believable tale, considering Nevada was home to one of the state's hospitals for mental illness. However, a list of Deepwood Cemetery lot owners, found at the Vernon County Historical Society, doesn't have a burial space for Neva.

A more likely explanation—based on a listing on Find a Grave, a website that indexes cemeteries and headstones, and which matches Neva's personal information—suggests she simply remarried and moved to California. The California Death Index, 1945-1997, shows that a Neva (Gibson) Simpson died Dec. 30, 1945 in Los Angeles. The birth date and place match those of Neva (Gibson) Dorsa.

Newspaper clipping featuring a picture of a skull.
Nevada Daily Mail, Nov. 30, 1987. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.
State Historical Society of Missouri

Wherever Neva ended up, Lon's body didn't exactly rest in peace. In July 1986, vandals broke into the town's most famous tomb and stole his head. It was recovered the following year in a Nevada home, but law enforcement and cemetery caretakers noted that the stone Bible, which had been cemented down for some time, was periodically ripped off the tomb.

Talbot Wight, the Deepwood Cemetery Board’s president at the time, told the Daily Mail in 1987 that Lon's hair, skin, and clothing were well preserved until vandals broke the encasing glass. "Evidently, he was still in pretty good shape until July," Wight said.

But when Lon's skull was photographed for the newspaper's front page, it featured no hair or skin, both of which likely decomposed quickly after being stolen if not before. The skull was buried in an undisclosed location away from the body so as to not tempt new grave robbers, and the tomb was re-sealed with marble in an attempt to prevent further damage.

Still, the story of Neva Dorsa and her husband’s remains hasn't died away. It circulates through southwestern Missouri, drawing visitors to Deepwood Cemetery to gaze at the stone plot—just not in the same way Neva had intended.


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