In a dictionary sometimes words are said to be "of cant origin". What does this mean? As an example, the Chambers dictionary lists "slang" as being of cant origin.

Searching online for the meaning of cant gives variously:

Hypocritical and sanctimonious talk, typically of a moral, religious, or political nature.

Language specific to a particular group or profession and regarded with disparagement.

[as modifier] Denoting a phrase or catchword temporarily current or in fashion.

Does "of cant origin" mean that the word was temporarily current or in fashion or is one of the other meanings more relevant?


It generally means the second one.

Cants in that sense can be pretty rich, and also act as a sort of lingual junction point in etymologies; through which words are borrowed from one language, change meaning, and then get absorbed into the general language of the area the cant is used in.

For example, we know that phoney comes from the Irish word fáinne ("ring") via English carnival cant fawny for the game of hoopla.

There are many other words were we know (or strongly suspect) that they came from a cant, but don't know any further. E.g. slum is from an American thieves' cant*, slang was found in several cants as the word for that cant itself, naff† was a term in the London LGBT and theatre cant Polari meaning "heterosexual" before it became a more general insult, and so on. Since we don't know the etymology of the word any further back than those cants, they're described as being "of cant origin".

*There's reason to suspect that slum comes from 's lom in Irish, but it's not as clear as the case of phoney so most people won't say more than "of cant origin"

Naff became a general insult through Ronnie Barker suggesting it to the writers of the television show Porridge as a nonce word to use where the characters would more realistically use fuck, shit or other words that couldn't be used in a family-audience comedy show. Barker claimed he didn't take it from Polari, but since he couldn't recall quite how he thought of it, it seems likely he'd picked it up subconsciously from Polari; as a heterosexual comic actor he would have heard it from other actors and in it being used in the comedy show Round the Horne, but likely not have had great fluency in it himself.

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    it might be worth adding that 'cant' often implicitly means "tinker's cant" or "gypsy cant" - the shared vernacular of various travelling communities in Britain and Ireland (with many dialects). I'd assume that sense whenever 'cant' is used by a dictionary, unless otherwise specified. Cant itself is from Irish 'caint', meaning 'talk'. – ArchContrarian Sep 20 '17 at 15:14
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    @ArchContrarian Cant can certainly implicitly mean Shelta/Gammon or Beurla Reagaird or Scottish Cant in some contexts, but it could also implicitly mean yet another cant in another context. Indeed, those three cants have little or nothing in common as cants aside from their being used by (3 different) travelling communities. The expression "the cant" more firmly means a particular cant, but again just which it means depends on the context of where it is being used. If your context was buying stolen goods in 19th C London, "cant" would implicitly mean the cant from which much Cockney slang… – Jon Hanna Sep 20 '17 at 15:28
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    …derives. The idea that cant < caint is possible, but so too that it comes from cant in the sense of "sing", from the Latin cantus. It could well even be a bit of both and have merged. – Jon Hanna Sep 20 '17 at 15:29
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    @R.M. "nonce word" has no such meaning in the UK or elsewhere, and the idea that I shouldn't use a well-known word because of a homonym is silly. I do note that nonce in that other sense is topical though; it's etymology is unclear, but it's possibly of cant origin. – Jon Hanna Sep 20 '17 at 15:33
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    … we know there was a path from fáinne in Irish to fawny in English carny cant, but while it's been suggested that maybe Shelta played a role in bridging the gap, it's not clear. Likewise, it's quite likely that other English underground cants helped it get from the carnies to elsewhere, but not clear. So "of cant origin" can be pretty honest that they don't know much more than that! – Jon Hanna Sep 20 '17 at 19:55

The slightly outmoded word itself "cant" refers to a slant or variation from straight that an object may have. A picture hanging well away from a wall is said to have a large cant, or be canted. Being "off the square" as such may be part of the meaning it has gained in descriptions of words and language.

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