Thieves' Cant

If you cook with heavy bones, you're sooner or later gonna dance with six dirty fingers.
— Common saying among Gamblers

This article was inspired by the work of: DreadClericWesley
Thieves' Cant is the secret language of rogues, burglars and ne'er-do-wells. It's a mish-mash of slang, sign languages and symbols placed in strategic locations to alert other thieves of news without being caught.  

Exclusive to Rogues

The Crown proclaimed that nobody is allowed to teach the Cant to foreigners. They actively enforce this rule and those that don't abide by it are punished severely.   Spilling the Cant is one of the most severe crimes, against The Crown and the whole criminal underworld at large, a rogue can commit.   Common punishments for spilling the Cant include:
  • Cutting off the tongue
  • Hanging
  • Death by a thousand cuts
  • Flaying

Alphabet

Symbols

Thieves' Cant doesn't only exist as a spoken language but also consists of a series of runic symbols that are carved into walls or drawn onto point of interest to mark them and quickly deliver short messages to other members of the trade.
Cant
Symbols of the Cant by Diarioz

Vocabulary

Thieves' Cant uses a vast array of code words to cipher a sentences true meaning and only those proficient in the language are able to decipher this code.  

Common Expressions

These phrases and words are quite common in the cant and important to converse in it. So naturally these are the first things a fresh rogue learns, when initiated into a thieves' guild.   They can be used to talk about jobs, event or just the trade in general.  
Code in Cant Meaning Examples & Notes
Cant The secret language of rogues
Family Guild Usually referring to speakers guild
Family in Law Allied Guild
Step-Family Hostile / Rivaling Guild
The Trade the Thieves' Trade or any illicit trade Working the trade = doing illegal business
Party Mission / Job We need some more friends to join the party.
Crown The Crown
Prince The Prince of Thieves
The Hand The Black Hand
Cold Dead e.g. a "Cold Pig" is a dead guard
Dig A place where treasure can be looted There's a lot of granite to be mined in that dig.
Cobbled Road A dangerous road/path Can be used to describe literal roads as well as paths of action
Dirt Road A (relatively) safe road/path Can be used to describe literal roads as well as paths of action
Dance to get executed Johnny's dance is getting dirty.
Sing to spill intel
Plant a tree Get hanged Johnny is going to plant a tree with his thumbs.
Guest House Jail
Going Home To break jail
Resting Being in Jail
Going Legit To die
 

Ranks and Titles

Rogues usually don't want to openly discuss names or position, neither of their targets, nor of other trade members, so they use code words to encrypt whom they are talking about.   When talking about people, all gender specific titles can be changed to the proper gender. E.g. Brother has the same meaning as Sister.  
Code in Cant Meaning Examples & Notes
Brother Guildmate
Brother in Law Member of an allied guild Don't worry about Johnny. He's my brother in in law.
Step-Brother Member of a hostile / rivaling guild Be careful on that party. Your Step-Brothers will be there too.
Little Brother Guild Initiate Our little brother isn't old enough for the party.
Cousin Contact For gossip on the party look for your cousin in the tavern.
Dragon Faction Leader Only of non Thieves' Guild Factions
Children / Kid Subordinate Send your children to the party.
Father Ring Leader / Direct Superior When you're back from the party, talk to your father.
Father in Law Superior Member of allied guild Deliver this special brew to your father in law.
Step-Father Superior Member of rival guild Your step-father has put a bounty on your head.
Grandfather Guild Master If you want a job in the bakery, talk to your grandfather.
Great Grandfather Prince of Thieves see Prince
Uncle Noble / Aristocrat When your uncle arrives at the party, you need to gift him that oiled wine.
Great Uncle Monarch / Sovereign The great uncle has sent many cloaks to hang around his pinata.
Whale Rich Person We need to angle some whales.
Mistress The Goddess Lavernia The great mistress blessed our bakery.
Stone Mason Money Changer / Fence You need to deliver this new booze to the stone mason and trade it for some granite.
Painter Forger I ordered some painted papers from the local Painter.
Friend Hired Muscle / Thug You should bring some friends for this party.
Magpie Bribed / corrupt official A magpie made its nest in the pig shelter.
Cloak / Pig Guard There's going to be a lot of cloaks hanging around at the dig site.
White Cleric / Priest
Grey Charlatan claiming to be a cleric / priest
Black Cultist / Warlock
Giver Assassin Always bring a giver to a birthday party.
 

Working the Trade

The most common use of the cant is during the preparation, recruitment and planning of a crime. To discuss those matters in private, the can't contains a plethora of code words to conceal your true intentions.  

Trade Work

When talking about a job, the first and most important thing one must discuss is what type of job one is talking about.  
Code in Cant Meaning Examples & Notes
Street Work Highway Robbery You'll have to do some street work if you want granite.
Birthday Party Assassination It's your uncles birthday party. Send him a present from me.
Family Reunion Guild War It's gonna be a great family reunion with our step-family. Bring your own chair to the party.
Road Trip Kidnapping Take the uncle and go on a nice road trip with him.
Delivery Smuggling You need to deliver some new booze to your cousin in Dawnlight, but don't let the pigs drink it.
Angling Pickpocket
Paving the road Bribing someone
Internship Covert Operation You're gonna go do an internship at our step-families bakery.
Carouse Gather Intel Go carousing and listen to some gossip.
Bakery Guild Operation Only family members are allowed to work in the bakery.
Confectionery High-Stakes Operation We need some more friends to work the confectionery.
(Corn) Mill Long-Term Operation It'll be months before the corn mill will yield any flour.
Garden Work Small scale Operation For this garden work you can come as you are.
 

Job Details

When the type of job is settled it's time to go into the nitty gritty of the trade and talk details. Often times clear instructions can make the difference between a successful heist and getting hanged in the morning.  
Code in Cant Meaning Examples & Notes
Number of candles Targets of an assassination Put 5 candles on the birthday cake.
Small Gathering No collateral damage It should only be a small gathering.
Surprise Party Look like an accident It should be a surprise party.
Full Hancock No survivors Go full hancock.
Party Planner Inside Informant Meet the party planner at the door.
Formal Strict guidelines This will be a formal party.
Informal / Casual No or lose guidelines It's gonna be a casual party.
Come as you are Do your thing Just come as you are.
Bring your own chair. Come armed / eqipped You're gonna have to bring your own chair.
Dress Up Hide Weapons / Lay Low
Put on Make-Up Disguise yourself
Send a gift to murder / assassinate Send your uncle a gift from me.
Invitation Letter Way in The party planner has your invitation letter.
Souvenir Proof of Idendity in a kidnapping Send him a nice souvenir from his daughter's road trip.
Postcard Ransom Demand
Don't leave your cloak. / Don't let the pigs smell it. Don't raise the guards.
Ale run Smuggling of illegal goods This can be anything from magic items to poison.
Special Brew Live cargo You'll have to deliver some special brew.
Vermin Problem / Verminous Spied on / Infiltrated The bakery has a vermin problem.
Bring a Date Get Backup Bring a date to the party.
Don't tell If you spill intel on this, you'll be dead.
Give credit Frame someone else Give proper credit to our step-family.
 

Mission Urgency

Let's face it. Some missions are more important/urgent than others. So you need a way to talk about that as well.  
Code in Cant Meaning Examples & Notes
How much time until the party starts? When is the mission going to start? / How urgent is the mission?
Weeks ago Not Urgent I haven't seen you in weeks.
Months ago Low Urgency The last party was months ago.
Years ago High Urgency I haven't been to one of my uncle's birthdays in years.
An eternity ago Extremely Urgent It felt like an eternity.
 

Sealing the Deal

When all the details are settled, there's only one thing left to discuss, money.   A rogue can either ask for money or demand a certain payment. Here's how to do that and how to finally settle the deal.  
Code in Cant Meaning Examples & Notes
Signing a letter Accepting a job
Will I see you at the party? Do you accept?
I'll be there I accept
I'm otherwise engaged I decline
How old will he be? / How many guests will there be? / How long is the road? How much does the job pay? Answer will be an appropriate answer with a number that either represents silver or gold.
This must be his Xth birthday. / A party like this needs at least X guests. / The party is X miles away. I demand X silver / gold for the job. / I am willing to pay you X silver / gold.
 

Treasure and Trading

Treasure, be it coins, jewelry or magic items, these code words are essential for talking about loot, payment, ransom or trade goods. Almost no conversation in cant will end without having contained at least a few of those words.  
Code in Cant Meaning
Tin Platin
Granite Gold
Gravel Silver
Clay Copper
Polished Magical
Rusted Cursed
Painted Fake / Forged
New Stolen
Booze Jewelry
Pinata Chest with unknown content
How old is this? When was this stolen?
What does that weight? How much are you willing to pay for that?
I can lift it easily! It's not worth that much!
It's way heavier than that! I want more for that!
 

Gambling

Gambling is the most favorite pass time of any rogue and charlatan that has at least a bit of good taste.   While gambling by itself isn't illegal in most nations, cheating and crooked games are an entirely different matter and more often than not lead to heated conversations among rogues.  
Code in Cant Meaning
Meal Game
Eat Gamble
Bones Dice
Heavy Bones Loaded Dice
Papers Playing Cards
Stamped Papers Marked Cards
Overcooked Meal Crooked Game
Cooking Cheating
 

Tools of the Trade

Every good rogue needs at least a few tools, only problem is that most of them are either illegal or get the guards all sharp-eared if you buy them. So it's easier to talk about them in secret and buy them from a trusted fence.  
Code in Cant Meaning
Sticks Lockpicks
Stick a Lock Pick a lock
Stuck Lock Open / picked lock
Ink Forgery Set
Make-Up Disguise Kit
Pokers Daggers
Needles Caltrops
Oil Poison
Wine Potion
Red Wine Health Potion
White Wine Special Potion
Irons Thieves' Tools
Iron Bar Crowbar
Eye Magical Wards
Ice Trap
Iced Floor Trapped Floor
 

Time

When members of the trade talk about time they use a special numerical code to encrypt times. In this coding system, time is split in dirty" and clean hours. Each full hour is represented by one finger and every 20 minutes past that are one knuckle.  

Examples

1:00 am
3:20 am
8:45 am
4:28 pm
9:18 pm
7 clean fingers
9 clean fingers and a knuckle
2 dirty fingers and 2 knuckles
10 dirty fingers and a knuckle
3 clean fingers and a knuckle
  Sometimes rogues can't even talk openly about the time when using the cant in fear it could still be deciphered. In this cases, they can use hand signs, showing some fingers and knuckles, while covering others. When doing so, showing the back hand is considered dirty, while showing the palm is considered clean.  
Code in Cant Meaning Examples & Notes
Dirty After sunrise past 6 am
Clean After Sunset past 6 pm
A finger An hour
A knuckle 20 minutes
Midnight Thumbs 12 am
Getting Dirty Near Sunrise ~6 am
Almost clean Near Sunset ~6 pm
Six dirty fingers Noon ~12 pm
   

Thieves' Cant in Use

Introducing yourself

Different kinds of rogues have different ways to introduce themselves as members of a specific trade. They will usually use a specific greeting when approaching another rogue:
Greeting Trade
My greetings Assassin's Guild
Our greetings (+ handshake) The Black Hand
Pleasure meeting you The Crown
Look what the storm dragged in! Thugs / Enforcers
Yo ho Pirates
Are my eyes deceiving me? Forgers
What do we have here? Smugglers
My, my, what an ordeal. Bookmakers
Come here, big hug! (+ hug) Pickpockets
What a catch! Fences
At your service. Slavers
Hey boy / Hey girl Brothers
Have some light? Spies
Hey handsome Charlatans
 

Talking Literally

Sometimes the rare occasion occurs that a rogue needs to use phrases or words that are code words in the Cant, but he means them literally, e.G. if he wants somebody to literally deliver a a package to his uncle.   If he's talking to someone who doesn't know the Cant, this won't be any problem, but for discussions among rogues, especially if they swap in and out of the Cant, there are some common code words to indicate literal meaning.  
Code in Cant Meaning
Let's be frank. All of the following is to be understood literally.
In all honesty. Only the following sentence is meant literally.
Jokes aside. Everything I said so far was meant literally.
Stay with me on this. The next sentences have literal meaning, until I indicate otherwise.
So far so good. End of literal meaning.

Examples

Birthday Party

Baldric, Prince of Thieves approaches Lenia, the Burning Rose and offers her a job.  

Cant

  • Baldric: Pleasure meeting you, Burning Rose.
  • Lenia: Our greetings, great grandfather. (shakes his hand)
  • Baldric: What brought you to Dawnlight?
  • Lenia: Family business. I need to visit my father in law, but don't worry. I just need to do some garden work with my knife, no big deal.
  • Baldric: I might have just the right offer to spice up your visit. My uncle owns the local branch of The Iron Bank and it's his birthday this weekend. It feels like years since I last was as at one of his parties, so I'm especially sad that I'm out of town this time as well. I still want to send him a gift though and you might just be the perfect giver for this occasion.
  • Lenia: I'm not sure, I don't even know your uncle and I surely don't want to invade a formal party like that.
  • Baldric: Don't worry. It's just gonna be a small gathering as a surprise party. You can just come as you are and not worry about anything. I'll just inform the party planner and he will hand over your invitation letter at the back entry.
  • Lenia: Sounds like a nice surprise. How old will your uncle become?
  • Baldric: He'll be 80 by then.
  • Lenia: 80? From the stories you told me in the past I though he would be at least a hundred years old.
  • Baldric: Hah, I guess you're right. I did make it sound like that. So will you go there for me?
  • Lenia: Yes, I'll be there.
  • Baldric: Alright, just meet me when I'm back in town after the party is over. And don't leave your cloak!
  • Lenia: I never do...

Actual Meaning

  • Baldric: The Crown welcomes you, Burning Rose.
  • Lenia: Greetings from The Black Hand, Prince of Thieves
  • Baldric: What brought you to Dawnlight?
  • Lenia: Guild contracts. I need to meet the ring leader of The Knife in town, but don't worry. It's just a small job and I won't cause any trouble for you.
  • Baldric: I have a contract for you. The target is the aristocrat that owns the local branch of The Iron Bank and I want you to kill him this weekend. It's an urgent job, but can't be anywhere near when it happens. You are the perfect assassin to handle this murder.
  • Lenia: I need more details and I do jobs my way, not by any guidelines.
  • Baldric: I want you to make it look like an accident and don't spill any unnecessary blood. Other than that, you have full discretion on this mission. We have an insider in the bank that can bring you in through the back entry.
  • Lenia: Sounds like a good contract. How much does it pay though?
  • Baldric: 80 gold should be enough for this.
  • Lenia: 80 gold? An aristocrat and emploaye of The Iron Bank is at least worht a 100 gold.
  • Baldric: I guess you're right. I'll pay what you've ask. So do you accept the contract?
  • Lenia: Yes, I accept.
  • Baldric: Alright, just meet me when the job is done and I'm back in town. And be careful not to raise any awareness from the gaurds.
  • Lenia: I never do...
Alphabet Runes / Thoralic
 
Common Speakers Rogues
 
Watched over by The Crown
Root Languages
Common Phrases
Cant The secret language of rogues
 
Family Guild
 
Brother Guildmate
 
Grandfather Guild Master
 
Crown The Crown
 
Prince / Great Grandfather Prince of Thieves
 
The Hand The Black Hand

Comments

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20 May, 2018 17:39

Oh, I like this! Very detailed.

20 May, 2018 18:18

There's an incredible amount of nuance here and I love it.

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Forgemaster Dimitris
Dimitris Havlidis
20 May, 2018 20:02

Damn ... The Great Uncle is pleased

29 May, 2018 20:14

This is like the "Thieves Cant" from D&D! :D :D

1 Jun, 2018 12:16

what happens when you mean something literally? e.g., you wanted someone to pilfer from your actual uncle at his actual birthday party.

1 Jun, 2018 12:18

Good point, I guess I'll have to add a special code word to indicate literal meaning :D