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The meaning and origin of the expression: The Canting Crew

The Canting Crew

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Who or what were The Canting Crew?

The OED defines the word cant in several ways, which include:

- The secret language or jargon used by gipsies, thieves, professional beggars, etc. and,
- Provincial dialect; vulgar slang.

In 1699 or thereabouts a Londoner, who only gave his name as B. E. Gentleman, published a glossary of the language of the classes of people who would use cant. He gave it the unambiguous title A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew. In fact, not leave any possibility of doubt the full title was:

A new dictionary of the canting crew in its several tribes of gypsies, beggers, 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 very diverting and entertaining being wholly new.

The Canting CrewIt seems that BE's intention was to make the secret language used by underworld classes available to all, in order that law-abiding folk might be able to protect themselves from whatever criminal activity the 'Canting Crew' might have planned for them.

Of course, the inclusion of gypsies and beggars along with thieves and cheats isn't acceptable today, but this was 17th century England, where such values were the norm.

BE's book is invaluable to those of us who researcg word and phrase origins. He listed numerous entries that might well have been lost to us if he had not. The dictionary was the prime source of information about street slang of the 17th and 18th centuries until Francis Grose published his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1811. grose took many of his definitions directly from The Canting Crew listing.

Here's a sample of the expressions that BE listed in his book:

As thick as thieves

Blow the gaff


Country bumpkin




Laid out in lavender



Rag, tag and bobtail

Whipper snapper

You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear

See also: the List of Proverbs.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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