On Writing The Highwayman

The Highwayman’s Quarry – Thieves’ Cant

The Thieves Den -18th-c engraving by William Hogarth

“Mill the gig with a betty, then we’ll strip the ken and backslang it out of here. I’ll lumber the swag at the stalling crib and we’ll be up in the stirrups.”*

One of the fun parts of writing a story set in the underworld of 18th-century London is getting to use Thieves’ Cant, or flash speech. What is Thieves’ Cant? It was a secret language attributed to criminals, mostly in Great Britain, beginning in the 1500s. Whether thieves actually used this language to disguise their activities, or whether it was invented by writers of pamphlets about thieves’ culture and dictionaries of their language, there seems no telling; probably there was a little of both. The speech became popular in Elizabethan theatre, and in the 18th century the Bow Street runners (early police) were said to be familiar with it.

Many of the terms are still used today: crib, crack, fence, gams, and grub all meant roughly what they do in today’s slang (or maybe the slang of old Hollywood gangster movies). Now we call an alcoholic a lush; back then the word meant either an alcoholic drink or the state of being intoxicated, and a drunken man was a lushy-cove.

A buz-cove (pickpocket) caught in the act.

Of course, sometimes you can have too much fun, and the modern reader won’t understand a thing. If I told you a word is on the tip of my Manchester, you’d probably think I’d lost my mind. And if I told you Oliver is in town, you’d still be in the dark and might want to light a glim.

Not wanting to confuse the reader was a small reason I didn’t use much flash speech in Daring and Decorum, even though it’s about a highwayman. The big reason is that the novel is told from the point of view of Elizabeth, the heroine, and takes place far from London. But when I wrote a prequel story featuring Robin Cantwell, my highwayman, told it from Robin’s point of view, and set it in the world of thieves and Bow Street runners, it only made sense that the characters would use flash speech.

Rest assured, there’s nothing so dense in the story as the passage that opens this post. I tried to just give a flavor of the period, without making readers resort to old slang dictionaries.

*Translation: “Break the window with a crowbar, then we’ll rob the house of all its valuables and make our escape through the side streets. I’ll fence the goods at the pawnbroker’s and we’ll be rich.”

Daring and Decorum will be out in August (pre-order here), and the story, tentatively titled “The Highwayman Takes an Office,” will appear in a holiday box set from The Final Draft Tavern. (You can find out more about Speakeasy Scribes, the folks behind the box set, on our Facebook page or on Twitter. Website coming soon.)

Here are some sources for 18th- and 19th-century Thieves’ Cant:

The engraving at the top is “The Thieves’ Den” by William Hogarth.

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