Sunday, 12 January 2014

Cant - The Language of Thieves, Hipsters & Politicians

Cant, Insincere, Out of touch
Photo by M.Howard


Noun. Early 16th century.
[In branch I sporadic uses from Latin CANTUS. In branch II from CANT verb.]

1 obsolete. Singing: musical sound. E16-E18
2 Accent; intonation. M17-M18

3 A whining manner of speaking; a whine. Now rare or obsolete. M17

4 The special phraseology of a class, sect, profession, etc.;
 jargon, slang. Usually derogatory. L17

5 A set form of words repeated mechanically;
especially a stock phrase or word temporarily in fashion. archaic. L17

6 Ephemeral catchwords; affected or insincere phraseology;
especially language (or occasionally action) implying piety which does not exist; hypocrisy. E18

7 obsolete. A person who uses such language. E18-L19


Adjective. Usually derogatory. Early 18th century.
[from CANT noun.]

Of words, phrases, speech, etc.: of the nature of cant;
ephemerally fashionable;
uttered mechanically.

cantly adverb in canting phraseology; in slang. E19


Verb. Mid-16th century.
[Probably from Latin cantare: see CHANT verb.]

1 verb intrans. obsolete. Whine; beg. M16-M19

2 verb intrans & trans. obsolete. Speak; talk; say. slang & dialectical. M16-M18

3 verb intrans. Use cant or jargon; affect fashionable or pietistic phraseology. M16

4 verb trans. Utter with cant phraseology. Now rare. M17

5 verb trans & intrans. obsolete. Chant; sing. M17-E19

canting adjective (a) that cants, using cant; (b) archaic. of the nature of cant. (c) HERALDRY containing an allusion to the name of the bearer. L16
cantingly adverb L17

Political cant
I dunno who dey are - but dey're an 'onest, 'ard-workin' family
(photo by Frederic de Villamil)
How do you identify political cant? Christopher Hayes of The Nation has an idea - in his article Notes on Political Cant, Hayes observes an inverse relationship between the specificity of a statement and the number of people that will agree with it. Therefore, a broad statement such as "We must do better!" will probably garner near unanimous agreement; a specific statement, however, such as "We must do better by focusing our attention on cutting costs to the welfare system by aggressively targeting those that habitually subsidise their chosen lifestyle with benefits," will garner considerably less support, and what support it does receive will likely be far more cautious. Therefore, Hayes writes, speechwriters perpetually attempt to balance their words to have sufficient semantic force while remaining virtually impossible to disagree with. The result? Cant in the form of content-free platitudes - "It's time to move forward!" "Hard decisions must be taken!" "Mistakes have been made." "The hardworking British / Irish / American [insert relevant nationality here] people want better." All pure, unadulterated, platitudinous cant.

The phrase "hardworking people" is a specific example of cant (on several different levels) used by the UK's Conservative Party - the Westminster Blog evoked rather feudal imagery by suggesting Tory ministers were trying to "flog the phrase to death". Such phrases as "for hardworking people" and "to help hardworking people" have been heard again and again during Tory speeches. This has drawn considerable criticism from numerous commentators, but in the context of this post qualifies as cant because it's virtually impossible to disagree with - there isn't actually anything to disagree with. If, however, a Tory minister specifically said what many consider to be the underlying message - that if things are tough for you, it's because you're not working hard enough and you need to work harder - then there would be plenty for opponents to challenge it on, and it wouldn't qualify as cant. 

One particularly odd example of this cant was observed in George Osborne, the Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer. In a speech to warehouse workers for the supermarket chain Morrisons, a speech predictably replete with canting talk of "hardworking families", Osborne was noted to drop his marked Received Pronunciation and adopt a more working man's Mockney accent, saying, for example, "whad I wanna talk t'you about ... we've 'ad a system ... the Briddish people badly wannit fixed." Considering that Osborne is a privately-educated Oxford graduate, son of Sir Peter Osborne, 17th Baronet of the Osborne Baronetcy, his sudden adoption of a cockney accent was variously greeted with scorn, ridicule and cries of insincerity and condescension. If that's true, the fact that his speech is both full of cant by Hayes' definition (content-free statements that are difficult to disagree with) and the adoption of insincere, fashionable language and phraseology to suit his audience, his speech to those warehouse workers becomes all the more canting.

Thank you, Angry Nerd, for requesting cant.
Let us continue moving forward, not backward, through the dictionary, making progress from A to Z, covering one word at a time. Onward! 

Note: there are numerous definitions to cant. For a full list, have a squizz at Oxford Dictionaries

Do any particular examples of cant drive you proper bonkers?

How do you identify cant?
(Or can't you?)

Do please leave your most amazeballs, jargonistic, criminally-cryptological, content-free comments below. 


  1. I found a great article in The Nation about cant in recent US political discourse [] which includes the delightful (and hyperbolic) phrase ""The Americanness of America is that its uniquely, Americanly American." As a constituent, I must say that sentiment raised my patriotic pulse by several notches.

    1. I think if someone tried to appeal to my patriotism by telling me that "The Britishness of Britain is that it's uniquely, Britishly British," or "The Irishness of Ireland is that it's uniquely, Irishly Irish," I'd want to hit them. It irritated me just typing it.

      And that's the same article I read - excepted I incorrectly attributed to The Spectator rather than The Nation. Oops! Now fixed.

  2. Nice one Ed. What a great word!

    For anyone living here in Ireland over the last couple of years, it's been almost impossible to avoid listening to this political dribble, from Bertie "King of Cant" Ahern or his cantiness Taoiseach Enda Kenny especially.
    If I had a euro for every time we've been told that "Going forward" we'll have a "soft landing", we just have to "think outside the box", "push the envelope a bit", do some "blue sky thinking"; as a country we all have to "give 110%", to ensure Ireland markets its "core values" to create "solutions".........
    Aargh! "SOLUTIONS". I think that's the worst one. I didn't know I had so many problems that needed solving.
    What a load of utter cant!

    1. I hate 'think outside the box' and 'blue sky thinking' too - if only people spent as much time actually working on these 'solutions' as they do thinking up stupid buzzwords.

      One cant but dream ...