What were the King of the Gypsies and Cock Lorel doing in the Devil’s Arse?
They were meeting in the Derbyshire cave with the memorable name to concoct a new language, the tongue of crime and criminals. The Gypsy King of the 1520s and 30s was Giles Hatherley and Cock Lorel was the mythical head (cock) of the rogues (lorels). Mostly referred to as ‘Cant’, the secret speech they allegedly created would last for centuries and some of its words are still spoken today.
Cant was a fluid amalgam of criminal codewords and street slang of the past and present, enriched with Romani and Parlary. Robert Copland’s Highway to the Spittal-House, published around 1536 contains the first record of this tongue. It included bousy cove, meaning a man under the influence of alcohol, a meaning still preserved in some slang. Another cant term that survived the centuries was patrynge (pattering) cove, meaning one who lived by some line of verbal deceit or other dubious activity. Others did not last so well, including dell for a virgin, pek for eat and jere for shit.
A dictionary of cant by ‘B.E. Gent.’ was published in the late 1690s under the exhaustive title A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of theCanting Crew, in its Several Tribes, of Gypsies, Beggars, Thieves, Cheats, &c. with an Addition of Some Proverbs, Phrases, Figurative Speeches, &c. Useful for all sorts of People, (especially foreigners) to secure their Money, and preserve their Lives; besides being very Diverting and Entertaining, being wholly new. This early example of multi-marketing by whoever the gentlemanly ‘B E’ might have beenechoed the speech of a vast underworld of vagabondage, thievery and deception. A New Dictionary, and the many publications like it, were mostly written to pander to the insecurities and curiosities of the literate classes and so often exaggerated aspects of the lives and language of conny-catchers and sturdy beggars.
Another early example of this publishing fad was The Third and Last Part of Conny-Catching. With the new devised knavish art of Foole-taking by ‘R G’, Robert Greene, which tells a number of cautionary tales of those who have fallen victim to the wiles of ‘this hellish crew’ who ‘cheate, cosen, prig, lift, nippe and such like tricks now used in their Conie-catching Trade’. The book ends with the warning ‘let each take heed of dealing with anie such kind of people’. There were no police forces at this time, so the honest citizen was generally responsible for his or her own safety and security. Similar works such as Thomas Harman’s A Caveat or Warening for Common Cursetors (1566), The Defence of Begging by ‘Cuthbert Cunny-catcher’ (1592) and Thomas Dekker’s The Belman of London (1608), among many other similar titles allow us to hear this tongue and know something of the lives and crimes of those who spoke it.
The Tudor period experienced increasing numbers of masterless men and other vagrants wandering the roads. By the time of Elizabeth’s reign, vagrancy and crime had become major issues for society and government. The poor – which meant the vast majority of the population – were seen as a possible source of disaffection and political violence. This was held to be especially so of those who would not or could not work, preferring instead a life of crime and, it seemed to the authorities and the respectable classes, of dissipation. In 1596 an Order by the Privy Council to the Justices of the Peace of Middlesex described the activities of such people:
a great number of dissolute, loose and insolent people harboured and maintained in such and like noysom and disorderly howses, as namely poor cottages and habitacions of beggars and people without trade, stables, ins, alehowses, tavernes, garden howses converted to dwellings, ordinaries, dicying howses, bowling allies and brothell howses. The most part of which pestering those parts of the citty with disorder and uncleannes are either apt to breed contagion and sicknes, or otherwize serve for the resort and refuge of masterless men and other idle and evill dispozed persons, and are the cause of cozenages, thefts, and other dishonest conversacion and may also be used to cover dangerous practizes.
Almost twenty years earlier the author of a polemical pamphlet had made similar complaints aimed at “Dauncers, Fydlers and Minstrels, Diceplayers, Maskers, Fencers, Bearewardes, Theeves, Common Players in Enterludes, Cutpurses, Cosiners, Maisterlesse servauntes, Jugglers, Roges, sturdye Beggers, &c.”
These light-fingered (from at least the 1570s) Canting Crews involved themselves in a bewildering variety of criminal specialisms and sub-specialisms. Cozenage was an Elizabethan version of the con trick, from the name that such people gave to their prospective victims, cousins or cozens. To prig was to steal, also used as a term for the stealer. To liftwas to steal goods from a shop, as in shoplifter, or to practice a form of robbery in which the lifter assumed the identity of a servant to gain access to luggage or other belongings. The nippe was a form of cutpurse thief who stole purses by slicing them from their owners clothing with a knife. A more refined nippe was the foyst, who used pickpocket skills to achieve the same ends.
From the sixteenth century Conie-catching also referred to deceptive practices, conie (conny, connie) being a term for a rabbit or, as we might say today, a bunny, who is caught by a con man. These swindles involved the catchers making the acquaintance of their intended conie, winning his trust then cheating him of his money or other possessions. In one variant or another the word has had a continuing presence in criminal tongues. In the nineteenth century a coney, coney dealeror coniacker was one who dealt in counterfeit money and the term eventually produced con man in all its English-speaking variations during the late nineteenth century and on into the twentieth and the twenty-first. These include con artist,con game, con girl, con woman, con head, con mob, con job, con racket and simply a con.
A slice of Cant from what is usually said to be its first record in print was written by Copland around 1536. While this is a contrived piece of verse conversation, it well suggests the difficulty of comprehending such talk for anyone not schooled in its complexities. The speaker is a porter of whom Copland has asked whether pedlars ‘with broken hose and breche’ pass this way:
Ynow, ynow; with bousy cove maund nace,
Teare the patryng cove in the darkeman cace
Docked the dell for a coper meke;
His watch shall feng a prounce’s nob-chete,
Cyarum, by Salmon, and thou shall pek my jere
In thy gan, for my watch it is nace gere
For the bene bouse my watch hath a coyn …
Copland admits that even he has difficulty understanding this ‘babble’, or ‘pedlyng frenche’.