Veiled Vocab

In a review of Daniel Heller-Roazen’s Dark Tongues: The Art of Rogues and Riddlers, an eclectic study of secret languages, Jacob Mikanowski notes that “some secret languages aren’t about secrecy at all”:

Often, they are products of the marginality of the people who speak them. Every group that is, in some way, set apart from a dominant, settled society because of ethnicity, caste, or profession—whether Jews, Gypsies, tinkers, peddlers, beggars—is liable over time either to retain its original tongue or, by dint of exclusion, to develop a language of its own.  This holds for crooks as well.  David W. Maurer, the 20th century’s leading student of American underworld slang, reported in The Big Con that most of his criminal informants were “amused at the idea that crooks are supposed to deceive people with their lingo.” Maurer spent decades studying the specialized language of pickpockets, con men, drug users, safecrackers, counterfeiters, and moonshiners and found that in most cases their individual cant or argot was simply a mark of their profession, “a union card … which takes several years to acquire and which is difficult to counterfeit.”

In another review of Dark Tongues, Elizabeth Schambelan highlights the possible connection between subversive slang and poetry:

Permitting miscreants to communicate about subversive modes of life and thought while leaving squares and suckers none the wiser, underworld jargons are “arms or shields employed by the dangerous classes of modernity,” Heller-Roazen asserts. … [He points] out that cant is nowhere attested before the Middle Ages, which means that it apparently found its way into poetry (specifically, François Villon’s ballads) almost as soon as it was invented. There may be “some hidden link between the two hermetic forms of speech, which makes of verse a kind of idlers’ talk, or jargon some variety of poetry,” he speculates, and intriguingly shows that cant’s lexical, phonetic, and syntactical operations satisfy Paul Valéry’s definition of poetry, in that they instigate a “prolonged hesitation between sound and sense.”