“It gives me such a sense of peace to draw; more than prayer, walks, anything. I can close myself completely in the line, lose myself in it,” wrote 24-year-old Sylvia Plath in a letter to her mother. She describes coming upon a bull in a field (at least, she thought they were bulls for “they seemed to have no utters”) and sitting down on a river bank to draw those cows—”my first cows.” Her drawings aren’t perfect or particularly noteworthy. But Sylvia Plath is one of those writers who I admire reflexively. When I was younger, before I knew better, I admired her for her tragedy, for her sadness and her bitter bleak world. Now, I admire her language. She writes with the same sparsity with which she draws: simple, bold, present.
You’ve probably heard of cockney slang, where rhyme and word association comes together to create some seriously weird linguistic substitutions. The classic example is using “apples” for “stairs.” See, stairs rhymes with pears, and apples and pears are associated words, thus stairs becomes apples. Similarly, eyes are sometimes referred to as “mincers” (eyes -> mince pieces -> mincers) and wives become “trouble” (wife -> strife -> trouble and strife -> trouble). It’s confusing, but it’s meant to be. It creates a system of insiders who understand the slang, and outsiders who do not. Some people believe that cockney slang sprung up as a way for criminals to confuse police and better achieve their nefarious goals (though that’s not an entirely accepted theory).
Anyway, I was researching cockney slang when I came across “thieves cant,” a language of thieves that has this truly incredible Wikipedia entry: “It was claimed by Samuel Rid that thieves’ cant was devised around 1530 ‘to the end that their cozenings, knaveries and villainies might not so easily be perceived and known’, by Cock Lorel and the King of the Gypsies at The Devils Arse, a cave in Derbyshire.” Sadly, Wikipedia goes on to inform me that, while thieves cant most likely “originated in this period, the story is almost certainly a myth.” Bummer, right? But at least we got to read about the fantastically named Cock Lorel and his cozenings and knaveries and villainies (lions and tigers and bears, oh my!).
As it turns out, English isn’t the only language with a thieves cant. The Germans had Rotwelsch, which pulls in words from Yiddish and Romany languages to create a verbal hodgepodge. But it’s also a highly literal language without abstractions, so instead of calling winter by an arbitrary name, it’s called “Blibberling,” which is the word for “shivering.” (Also, how great is it that both shivering and blibberling feel incredibly onomatopoeic? Just imagine trying to stammer out blibberling between chattering teeth.) Similar, criminals in Yugoslavia once spoke in Šatrovački to hide their knaveries. Šatrovački seems a little like a Slavic pig-latin, in which words are distorted by changing around the order of the syllables. (For example: trava—grass, often used for marijuana—becomes vutra instead of vatra, meaning fire and pivo—beer—becomes vopi.)
It’s amazing how, while these languages were created for mendacious purposes, they’re still so damn beautiful. Another great word from thieves cant is “glymmer,” which means fire. Glymmer! How utterly lovely. I’m also struck by how poetic slang words can be, how vibrant and bold. This happens with American slang, too. Just think of all the words that are being coined on Snapchat right now by the youths! It’s pretty mind-boggling.
Plus, it’s extra cool because American English is basically just a big ol’ melting pot filled with pilfered phrase and made-up words. I’m going to quote this article at length, so click through… Continue reading