Words are a writer’s tools, and for authors of Regency romance, the vocabulary of cant adds color and humor to story. But what is cant?
Cant is slang. Merriam Webster says it is “the private language of the underworld”. But it’s also the language of soldiers, sailors, and the street, often illustrative of bodily functions and body parts. And of course, sex. Cant covers the base and basic.
Best used judiciously, it overwrites tired clichés and adds a street poet’s imagery to stories. I can’t recall any cant used by Jane Austen, can you? Though she was a clergyman’s daughter, she also had brothers, a lively mind, and an appreciation for language. She must have heard some of the words and expressions.
Eighty years ago, the first Regency romance was published by author Georgette Heyer, who made frequent use of cant, most often in the speech of the bawdy brothers of her heroines.
He looked her over critically, and said: “Just as well he ain’t , for he’d be bound to give you one of his scolds for dressing-up as fine as fivepence! I must say, Bella, you’re turned out in prime style! Slap up to the mark, ain’t she, Felix?”
Mr. Scunthorpe, much discomposed at being called upon to give an opinion, opened and shut his mouth once or twice, bowed, and looked despairing.
“He ain’t much of a dab with the petticoats, but he’s a great fun, I can tell you! Up to every rig and row in town!”
Arabella, by Georgette Heyer
Best-selling Regency author Collette Cameron often adds touches of cant in her stories:
“Five bloody unbelievable beauties,” Leventhorpe muttered beneath his breath. “My God, five. And not one a hopper-arsed or corny-faced.”
Wagers Gone Awry, by Collette Cameron
And in her Spymaster Novels, author Joanna Bourne’s character, Hawker, often speaks in the thieves cant of his youth:
“A night shift. It’s hers. Right length. Right shape to cover those apples.”
The Forbidden Rose, by Joanna Bourne
Many cant expressions have carried over the same meaning for three centuries, like these classics:
Birthday suit–stark naked
Ragamuffin–a ragged fellow
Others have changed meaning. This past weekend, Collette Cameron spoke at the Orange County Chapter of Romance Writers of America meeting and had all of us grabbing our iPhones to look up a cant word that has transformed into something Fifty Shades-worthy. Perhaps it’s wise to check the more obscure cant words’ meanings in the current Urban Dictionary before using them!
I’m in the thick of edits on a Regency story with a heroine who might think in cant, but dare not use it in public. Fortunately, one of her brother’s oafish friends has returned to London from an extended stay abroad, so I have a chance to work in some colorful language!
There are many sources for cant, but one of the most comprehensive I’ve found is at the Regency Assembly Press.
I’ve always been partial to the expression “pockets to let” and just found a new favorite insult, “bacon-brained”.
Do you have any favorite cant sayings? Please share them!
Images: Wikimedia, the author