Regency Language of Cheats, Pickpockets, and Swindlers

Crime was rampant in the Regency Era, and some people attributed the increase to an upsurge in population, particularly of male youths, boys from 8 to 16 years of age. A committee established to look at crime noted that they believed the increase arose “from more active and general prosecution of petty crimes.”[1]

Cheats, Pickpockets, and Swindlers

“The notorious Black Billy ‘At Home’ to a London Street Party.” Notice the pickpocket on the far right. Public domain.

Petty criminals could be found anywhere, including on the streets, at exhibitions like Madame Tussaud‘s, or even in church and among those that traversed London streets were the cheats, swindlers, and pickpockets. If you were not one of them, you were busy keeping an eye out to avoid them. However, it was not easy to deter or steer clear of them, as they always kept “a sharp look out to entrap the property of the honest part of the community, to take in and cheat the unwary, — to rob and perhaps murder the unprotected, to make prey of the unsuspecting.”[2]

One way the cheats, pickpockets, and swindlers accomplished their goal was using a language not readily familiar to the public. A few of the more interesting words, terms, and phrases they used are provided below:

ADAM TILER was a pickpocket’s accomplice who received the stolen goods and ran off with them.
AMUSERS were rogues that carried snuff, threw it the eyes of their victims, and then an accomplice pretended to help the victim but plundered or picked the person’s pockets instead.
The ARCH ROGUE or DIMBER DAMBER UPRIGHT MAN referred to the leader among a gang of thieves or gypsies.
AUTEM DIVERS referred to pickpockets who practiced their sly trade in churches.

The art of picking a lock was said to be BLACK ART.
A gambler or a sharper of the turf or in the cock-pit was called BLACK LEGS.
BLOW-UP meant exposure.
To run away with the goods was known as BONE.
If you were BOWLED OUT, you were discovered.
A BUFFER NAPPER was a dog stealer.
Two pickpockets were known as BULK AND FILE. The BULK jostled the victim and the FILE picked the pocket.
If you were arrested you were BUMMED.
A BURICK was a prostitute.
If you were BUSHED you were without money.

Cheats, Pickpockets, and Swindlers

Pickpockets of the clergy. Public domain.

CANARY BIRD referred to someone in jail.
The head was known as the CANISTER.
A CAT AND KITTEN RIG referred to the stealing of pewter pots, both quart and pint sizes, from pubic houses.
CATTLE referred to whores or gypsies.
A CAVAULTING SCHOOL was a bawdy house.
A CHANT was an advertisement or article in a newspaper describing a robbery or other event related to lost or stolen property that offered a reward for the recovery of the property or information about the thief.
CHEEK BY JOWL meant side by side or hand to fist and was a techniques used by pickpockets.
A CHOAK OFF was someone who was mischievous and gave information to a magistrate about another person, so that the affected person might say “he must be got rid of.”
CHIVING LAY was someone who cut the braces of a coach from behind, so that when the coachmen left the box, an accomplice could easily steal the boot.
A CLANK NAPPER was a silver tankard thief.
CLICK meant to snatch or to steal a hat.
CLOUT a handkerchief of any kind but could also refer to a person who stole handkerchiefs, as this was a speciality.
A COVE referred to a man and MACE to swindle or cheat, so a MACE COVE referred to a swindler, a sharper, or a cheat.
A female cheat or bawdy house keeper was known as a CORESS.
A CULL was someone who duped prostitutes.

DEAD NAIL referred to someone who cheated but did so on the sly so as to preserve their reputation and cause others to believe they were honest.
To carry off hastily was known as DING.
A DING COVE referred to a robber.
To DIVE was to enter a pocket.
DODGE meant to follow at a distance.
DOWN referred to a known fact.
A heavy coach or cart was called a DRAG.
DRAW referred to either an entrapping question or picking a pocket.
Eye glasses were known as DROPS.

FELO-DE-SE meant suicide.
FIGGING LAW referred to the art of pick pocketing.
If you were known to brag you were called a FLASH, but a FLASHMAN meant you were the preferred man.
FLASH HOUSES were the resorts of thieves, professed gamblers, and the idle and dissolute.
The person who received stolen goods were known as a FENCE or a HEDGE.
The FLESH MARKET was the resort of bad women.
Transportation was said to be FOREIGN PARIS.
To knock down was to FLOOR.

To wink or to encourage theft was to GAME.
GRAB meant to snatch up.
If you had knowingness, you had GUMPTION.

HAD-UP was a police cross-examination.
A worn out strumpet was known as a HARRIDAN.
An assemblage or family of dishonest or doubtful characters was known as a HAVIDGE.
HUM-GUMPTION meant to pretend.

To be given a hint or notice on the sly was called ITEM.

A JACK IN THE BOX referred to a sharper or cheat.
JIG referred to a trick.

To live by precarious means was to KEDGE.
KIMBAW was to trick or cheat.
KNUCKLES was a pickpocket who patronized the avenues to steal pocket books or watches and was considered to be a superior kind of pickpocket.

Transportation was also known as LAG.
A dishonest course of life was called LAY.
If you LET IN it meant to betray someone when gambling.

MASSACREE was the vulgar term for murder.
Backwardness of speech was referred to as MEALY-MOUTHED.
To abscond on the sly was to MIZZLE.

Silly people were called NATIVES.

If you were dull, stupid, or senseless, you were known as OPAQUE.
To scold loudly was to OPEN.

PADS referred to street robbers.
An examination before a magistrate for cheats, pickpockets, and swindlers was known as a PATTER.
Something nefarious that was planned beforehand was known as a PLANT.
To lay pounds in a wager was to POUND.
When acquainting thieves with the details of an upcoming robbery it was known as PUT UP.

Cheats, Pickpockets, and Swindlers

A skilled pickpocket. Public domain.

A pocketbook was known as READER.
A bed was a ROOST.

Ragged street thieves were called SCAMPS.
A person shabbily dressed or having no money was said to be SEEDY.
The covert language of thieves was SLANG.
To be drunk was to be SNUFFY.
A brothel or bawdy house was a SNOOZING KEN.
TO SPAR was to fight.
Fun was called a SPREE.
To look hard at or examine was called STAG.

A cheat was called a TAKE IN but to TAKE IT IN was to believe a lie.
Stolen articles were called THE THINGS.
Clothing was known as TOGGERY, but a great-coat was known as a TOGGER.
If you eyed women you were said to be TOUTING.
TOWN was a reference to London.
TRADE meant smuggling.
To change was to TRANSMOGRIFY.
To TROLL was to loiter or saunter.
TURNED UP meant ruined.
If you refused or denied someone, you were said TO HAVE TURNIPS.
To purposely eye or examine someone or something was to TWIG.

UP THE TOWN referred to street walkers of any sex.
The UPRIGHT MAN was the chief or principal person of a gang or crew.

The Latin term VERBUN SAT meant “a word to the wise is enough.”[3]

A WHIDDLER was an informer or someone who betrayed their gang.
WINNINGS was a reference to plundered goods or money acquired by theft.
A blow or a slap was called a WHOP.

References:

  • [1] The London Magazine, 1829, p. 247.
  • [2] Perry William, The London Guide and Stranger’s Safeguard Against the Cheats, Swindlers, and Pickpockets that Abound Within the Bills of Mortality, 1818, p. vi.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 160.

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