Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Reading as a Criminal in Early Nineteenth-Century Fiction

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Reading as a Criminal in Early Nineteenth-Century Fiction

Article excerpt

According to Humphry Potter's A New Dictionary of All the Cant and Flash Languages, first published in 1797, criminals are "better enabled to carry on their Work of Depredation, by using a Language known only to themselves, by speaking and conversing in a barbarous Jargon, unintelligible, and unknown to honest Men." Because criminals possess this jargon, known as "cant" or "flash," "the Shop-keeper and Tradesman find themselves at a Loss, whilst the most daring Offenders openly and before their Faces, converse upon the Practibility of robbing, cheating, or defrauding them" (Potter iii-iv). In A Dictionary of the Slang and Cant Languages (1809), George Andrewes followed Potter in emphasizing that the thieves' jargon was an effective code: "ONE great misfortune to which the Public are liable, is, that Thieves have a Language of their own; by which means they associate together in the streets, without fear of being over-heard or understood." Andrewes aims in his dictionary "to expose the Cant Terms of their Language, in order to the more easy detection of their crimes" (iii).

In Romantic fiction, criminal cant, the dialect of thieves was an encryption, an encoded language that scrambles or conceals its meaning except to the initiates. By adapting or encoding criminal dialect, texts exclude some readers while including others--and leave others stranded between. Since readers can never be certain that the decoding they have performed has uncovered the real meaning, being stranded is the norm.

The "flash," "cant," or "slang" of the criminal classes was fashionable in early nineteenth-century England. Standardized in various editions of Francis Grose's Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (first published in 1785), among other lexicons, (1) it was disseminated through the theater and in novels such as Pierce Egan's popular Life in London (1820-21), illustrated by George Cruikshank, and its theatrical adaptations. Flash dialect appears in poems by Lord Byron and Thomas Moore, and in fiction by Walter Scott, Edward Bulwer, William Harrison Ainsworth, and Charles Dickens. The attention to cant in these literary works is an innovation, insofar as cant was seldom reproduced in earlier English novels depicting criminal society: Henry Fielding uses cant only rarely in Jonathan Wild (1743), and the thieves in William Godwin's Things as They Are (1794) speak the same Godwinian English as the other characters.

In early nineteenth-century England, flash was widely adopted, particularly by those in the boxing subculture. When Grose's Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue was updated as Lexicon Balatronicum in 1811, the reviser noted that Grose had not foreseen back in the 1780s that "young men of fashion would [...] be as distinguished for the vulgarity of their jargon as the inhabitants of Newgate" (Lexicon v); "Jon Bee," John Badcock, wrote in his 1823 dictionary of slang that flash, which previously had been limited to "thieves and gamblers," had been adopted by "other kinds of persons" in order to "evince their uppishness in the affairs of life" (Badcock 80). Since underworld language cannot serve a criminal intent unless it remains "unintelligible, and unknown to honest Men," lexicographers like Potter publicized cant in order to subvert it. (2) Learning flash and using it protects people against criminals who speak it. The cant dictionaries served both purposes, regardless of the authors' real or professed intentions. Moreover, the readers could use flash just like the criminals: the reviser Lexicon Balatronicum (1811) wrote that the dictionary would allow "the whole tribe of second-rate Bang Ups" to "talk bawdy before their papas" (vi), and, thanks to developments in flash language, "improper topics can with our assistance be discussed, even before the ladies, without raising a blush on the cheek of modesty" (vii). Notwithstanding the editor's condescension toward these "second-rate" men, he recognizes the opportunity flash language provided for disguised communication. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.