Talking the Talk Thieves’ in Your Game By Alana Joli Abbott Illustration by Ben Wootten

Vanessa twisted her purse strings around her fingers absently before realizing that such behavior would draw to her purse—exactly what she didn’t want in this part of town. She walked more quickly, scanning the for the tavern where she was to meet her potential new hires. There, lit by torches, was a shingle that showed a small wedge of steel and the “The Little Alderman.” She was as good as there. Two men stood by the window, their faces shaded, and she walked slowly as she passed them, hoping to overhear any nefarious implications of their conversation. “Ste tehel labne ken kal?” one said, and she blinked, her hand on the door. She thought herself well versed in lan- guages, but that one she didn’t recognize. The other let out a guffaw. “Come now, Arin. Labne o tryn kene kal. Gave it to the abbess at the academy straight after.” Well, at least the ruffians were educated churchgoers, she supposed. It was no surprise that, a few moments after she had secured a corner table, the two entered and headed her way. They made an odd pair: one short and swarthy, with a nose

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March 2012 | DRAGON 409 1 Talking the Talk that looked to have been broken at least twice, the other tall In a , Argot and gentlemanly, boasting a well-maintained mustache. She stood, but the short man waved her down. Classical thieves’ cant is considered an argot: a secret Origin in the Game “No obark need stand for a pair of basimbasim,” he used by a group of people to speak in the announced in a rough (the one she had first heard out- presence of outsiders without being understood by In October 1982, Dragon #66 published an side), then sat across from her. The more charming of the them. Sometimes an argot is intentionally designed; extensive “primer for the language of larceny” pair settled beside her. other times, it’s simply shop talk that is understand- by Aurelio Locsin. In it, the author discusses “Word is that you need a hack in the business of asset able to anyone familiar with its terms. Any shared and , then goes on to reallocation,” the charmer said without preamble. that is unfamiliar to outsiders could be produce a foldable of the argot’s The short man took over. “If you’ve got signals and are classified as an argot. For example, a classical musi- earliest form for gamers to bring to the table. earnest, we’re the rounders you need. Ain’t a joke can stand cian with no playing the Dungeons & This treatment reflected the rules at the time against Telner’s jemmies.” Dragons game might be baffled by conversations that defined thieves’ cant as a unique language, She looked at the charming man blankly. He smiled. “If about crits and d20s; on the other hand, a gamer with which had to be learned like any other. you’ve got a plan, and can pay, Arin and I can clear your no musical training could be equally perplexed by Locsin notes that cant has no articles (a, an, way against any unfortunate obstacles.” fermata or bars of in 5/4 time. And and the) and that plurals are words repeated, so Vanessa nodded, thinking not for the first time that she both might mistakenly believe that a sailor discussing that “box” is kal, while “boxes” is kalkal. If you was in over her head. a PFD (personal flotation device, also known as a life want to describe very big boxes, you would say jacket) is confused about the PDF file format. Some siosio kalkal; sio means any sort of increase in Thieves’ cant has long been a staple of the game argots are more complex than others. size or . Because modifiers ( and table and of fantasy literature, but bringing it into Scholars disagree over whether the original adverbs) describe whatever word they are clos- a campaign can be a challenge. Few people have thieves’ cant, recorded in the 1530s, is a true lan- est to, the in cant ends up being quite the patience or the inclination to learn the full lan- guage or an argot. Possibly based on the language of strange: “The fast man runs slowly,” for example, guage, a mishmash of and grammar based on the Romany people (commonly referred to as gyp- comes out as Obok sen koma ark, which literally old Romany. But knowing a few of the secret sies), it had its own grammar with strict rules for translates to “Slowness run speed man.” could turn the heads of your fellow players— word order. However, thieves’ cant soon integrated Here’s a sampling of phrases from that presen- and make clear just how different thieves’ cant is vocabulary from both Romany and English and tation, including two that are used in the passage from Common or other . began to shift from a full language to a collection of at the start of this . ✦ A simple trick to achieve the same flavorful result terms that could be interspersed into normal Eng- Ste tehel labne ken kal? Who stole the box is to sprinkle your character’s dialogue with slang lish conversation. Different also developed; yesterday? ✦ words that familiar in English but have dif- the of Romany immigrants was closer to a Labne o tryn kene kal. Yesterday I saw you steal ferent definitions when spoken among thieves. A true language than the argot of thieves, who spoke a the box. ✦ classy breed of rogue might use euphemisms for his higher form of cant than beggars. Te ken kal! Steal a box! ✦ or her trade; for example, a gentleman burglar might Scholars began recording cant for posterity in Labne bano. I went yesterday. ✦ say he’s in acquisitions, and a forger could advertise as early as the 1560s in the hope that Kar bano. I will go. ✦ her services as a calligrapher. Which of these styles familiarizing ordinary folk with the language of crim- Kutin bano beti mublini. I might go if it rains. ✦ you adopt depends on how much effort you want to inals would reduce their likelihood of being victims Beti tyni barbo, takin bano. If he had a boat, I put into this aspect of your character and the of of a crime. The language was also a popular device would go. ✦ rogue you want to portray. among Elizabethan writers, including Shakespeare, Mone kawabi. Nafeni o. You are a cleric. Help who began using bits of thieves’ cant in their plays me. and stories. Though in recent years it has grown more

March 2012 | DRAGON 409 2 Talking the Talk popular in fantasy fiction (such as Patricia Wrede’s Skill or Language? Worlds of Mairelon the Magician and Tamora Pierce’s Terrier Particular campaign settings could well have their and its sequels), Charles Dickens made extensive use Players and DMs have a few ways to represent thieves’ own nuances of thieves’ cant, especially as slang rather of the slang for his character the Artful Dodger in cant in their game. Review the options presented than a full language. In the world of , for exam- Oliver Twist, and historical romance writer Georgette below and determine which style of use makes the ple, cant speakers might refer to the lightning rail as a Heyer used cant in several of her novels, written in most sense in your campaign. “flash rumble-tumble”: a fast coach that runs on magic. the mid-1900s. Even in modern English, fragments The most obvious option is to represent thieves’ A thief in Sharn might talk about “the oaks up top,” of the cant remain in expressions such as “higgledy- cant as a use of the Thievery skill; as with picking speaking of the rich people living in the highest build- piggledy” and “bilk.” locks or disabling traps, learning cant is just a part ings in the city. You might hear of someone “taking the of the trade. Because Thievery is based on Dexterity, side of the Traveler” when playing devil’s advocate, or you might wish to treat the as hand Hugo’s Argot swear by “Six, Sparks, and Sovs,” referring to the Dark signals or language. For example, black-market Six, the Silver Flame, and the Sovereign Host. English isn’t the only language to have a thieves’ cant. traders might chat about the weather while tapping In the setting, Gulg might be called In , the word “argot” was coined to describe their fingers against each other’s wrists to convey “Itchland”; since that city is blessed with more water the cant of a particular group of thieves in the 1620s. about an illicit sale. Other hand signals than others in Athas, its inhabitants might also have a Author Victor Hugo used argot in his famous novel might be used to maintain necessary silence while propensity for lice and thus cause for itching. Bodach Les Miserables, and he studied the language as well, announcing the presence of a trap, a lock, or guards could be referred to as hunaholyat, or “death city”; declaring it a corruption of French. In the novel, he ahead. rogues intending to go there are likely to “go legit” (die). wrote, “What is argot, properly speaking? Argot is the Players who want to treat cant more like an inde- language of misery.” pendent language might prefer to associate it with Although Hugo saw argot as miserable, and the old Streetwise instead. This Charisma-based skill reflects A Lot or a Little? Romany cant remains impenetrable, the thieves’ cant the ease with which a character communicates, using What style of cant works best for your rogue? To learn that most gamers are familiar with is largely adapted the right words to get the point across without tip- from the of the early 1700s through the something of the language in general—or at least a ping off the “traps” (the watch). For a rogue in his or detailed description of the oldest version of thieves’ Victorian era, as recorded in the sources The Universal her home town, only an easy check is needed to suc- Etymological English Dictionary (Nathan Bailey, 1736) cant—your best option is to seek out Locsin’s excellent ceed; but because the particulars of thieves’ cant can extensive primer, which covers pronunciation, word and Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811 edition). vary widely from one area to another, the DC of such These two sources and a host of other old books are formation, and word order thoroughly. checks is likely to increase the farther away from For a more accessible but still extensive addition available online, to be perused for interesting phrases home he or she goes. beyond those included in this article. to your game, you can take the words and phrases Both of these options require that a character have detailed at the end of this article and sprinkle them training in the appropriate skill, or at least have a into your rogue’s dialogue. Though only a smattering decently high score in the relevant ability. of vocabulary has been collected here, several old dic- Some players and DMs might prefer to make tionaries of cant are available in the public domain, thieves’ cant a true language, as was the case in ear- and you can find reproductions of the eighteenth-cen- lier versions of the game. A starting character can tury dictionaries online. In addition, writer Stephen choose it as a bonus language if he or she has the Hart has compiled an in-depth collection of slang option to do so. Alternatively, the Linguist feat allows and other useful historical references at his 18th Cen- access to three additional languages, of which thieves’ tury Resources website (http://www.pascalbonenfant. cant could be one. com/18c/cant), complete with a search engine to help you find the you’re looking for!

March 2012 | DRAGON 409 3 Talking the Talk

What if, rather than being a lowbrow criminal, Bagged flash: Magic item. Equipt: Rich. Also oak. your rogue is a member of a secret ? Bam: Cheat. Also cog, nap, slur. Fams: Gloves. words and catchphrases are vital for those in the spy Bamboozle: Make a fool of someone. Fang: . industry or otherwise engaged in covert operations. Bawd: A magistrate. Fence: Sell stolen goods. A thesaurus can be your friend at the game table, Beef: Wound. Flag waving: Planning. allowing you to cover your activities with perfectly Beggar maker: Tavern owner. Flash: Magic. (“Flash” is traditionally used for the legal-sounding words, such as “acquisition” in place Bene: Good. Also rum. work of thieves, but in many fantasy settings, it has of “theft.” You might also invent phrases or Birds of a feather: Gang or guild. been adapted to mean magic instead.) to help you identify members of your secret organi- Bite: Trap. Flash cove: Male wizard. zation. A password can be as obtuse as “the red dog Bones: Dice. Flash mot: Female wizard. barks at midnight” or as obvious as “the package has Box-man: Safecracker. Flogger: Member of the watch. Also bus napper, been delivered.” It could be a question (“Have you Bread: Money. Also iron, king’s pictures, plate, ready, catch pole, fool finder, grunter, lurcher, pig, tapper, trap. seen the eclipse?”) along with a prearranged answer wedge. Footpad: A common thief. (“No, but I will see the one that is coming”). Alterna- Brother of the blade: Soldier. Also beef eater, foot wab- Galoot: Mercenary soldier. tively, you might wear a bit of an identifying , or bler, swod, swodkin. Game: Theft. invent a secret handshake or a knock. Brother of the string: Bard. Also crowdero, sheepskin Glim: Lantern. fiddler, tormentor of catgut, wait, zany. Grifter: A con artist. Slinging the Slang Bruiser: Fighter. Also fibbing-gloak, nulling cove. Gudgeon: A gullible person. Burn the ken: Escape. Also hike, rub. Guest house: Prison. Also porridge, pound, quod, sher- The opening passage of this article uses a few of Button: A fake coin. iff’s hotel. the entries in the list below to illustrate a version Chaunt: Song. Hack: Hired help. of thieves’ cant that’s made up mostly of alternative Click: Hit. Also dowse. Harmans: The stocks. meanings for everyday words. A slang term of this Clod hopper: Farmer. Have tea with the pigs: Be tortured. sort might hint at its true (for example, Cove: Man. High and low men: Loaded dice. “bones”), but in most cases the connection between a Crash: Kill. Also hush, use up. High pad: Highwayman. Also knight of the road, land term and its meaning is obscure or misleading to the Cry beef: Call for the watch. pirate. uninitiated. Cull: Honest man. His Honor’s guest: Prisoner. Also jailbird. Abbess: A madam. Danglestuff: Rope. Hit-Man/Hitter: Assassin. Academy: Brothel. Darbies: Manacles. Hoodwink: Con or lie. Also amuse, fob, fun, sham. Affidavit man: False witness. Also knight of the post. Darkmans: Night. Hole in need of plugging: Informant. Also rat. Air and exercise: A whipping. Also cly the jerk (to Dawb: Bribe. Jack in a box: A cardsharp, cheat, or con artist. receive a whipping), flogging, hue, teize. Death hunter: Undertaker. Jack nasty face: A common sailor. Angler: Thief who draws in victims in order to rob Dimber damber: Guildmaster. Jem: Ring. Also onion. them. Ding boy: Mugger. Jemmy: Crowbar. Arch rogue: Leader of a guild of thieves. Also prince Dive: Hideout. Also stalling ken, stop hole abbey. Jigger: Whipping post. prig, upright man. Diving: Picking pockets. Joke: Lock. Ard: Stolen. Dommerer: Beggar. Jordain: Staff. Ark: Boat. Also swimmer. Drag: Follow. Jukrum: License; specifically, permission to operate Aunt: A harlot. Dress up: Tie up. within the territory of a thieves’ guild. Autem diver: Pickpocket. Also buzman, foist, purse Earnest: Promise to pay. Ken: House. Also panny. collector, reader merchant.

March 2012 | DRAGON 409 4 Talking the Talk

Ken cracker: Housebreaker. Also cracksman, rusher. Lone wolf: A thief not attached to a guild. Morning drop: Gallows. Also chatts, deadly never- Kurbe: Gnome. Low tide: No coin in a pocket. green, nubbing cheat, three-legged mare. Lark: Fun. Mark: Target of a con or crime. Also pigeon. Moss: Lead (the metal). Lay: Danger. Milch cow: Fool. Also gudgeon, gull. Mot: Woman. Also moll, mort. Lid: Door. Mistis: . Natty lad: Street urchin. Light bob: Low-ranking soldier. Moon pigs: Night watchmen. Nimgimmer: Healer. Lightmans: Day. Nob: Head. Nabbed: Arrested. Also invited. Nick: Steal. Also bite, borrow, cloy, filch, heave, hoist, lift, make, snaffle. Say What? . . . Nubbed: Hanged. Also acorned, dangled, had a case of hempen fever, scragged, stretched, swung. If you want to use thieves’ cant less as a collection of individual slang terms and more as a form of or Nubbing cove: Hangman. Also ketch, topping cove. double-talk that attaches a secret meaning to particular expressions, here are a handful of sayings, insults, Oak/Oaken towel: A wooden cudgel. and other useful turns of phrase. Obla: Half. Babes in the woods: Criminals in the stocks. Looking as if one could not help it: Playing dumb. Pad: Highway. Born under a half-copper planet, never to be worth Napper of naps: A sheep stealer. Pair of eyes: Lookout. a gold: A person who is remarkably unsuc- O Be Joyful: A threat, meaning “I’ll give you Pig poker: Dagger. cessful at anything he attempts. something to cry about.” Pop: Pawn. Also vamp. A buck of the first head: A person whose Odd-come-shortly: Sometime or another. Pop shop: Pawnbroker. debauchery exceeds that of his fellows. Outrun the constable: Live beyond one’s means. Prancer: Horse. Also keffal. Child’s best guide to the gallows: A pack of play- Pothooks and hangers: Extremely poor Prig napper: A bounty hunter. ing cards. handwriting. Punchline: Lock pick. Also dub. Death’s head upon a mop-stick: A miserable, Quacking cheat: A duck. Rap: False oath. emaciated person. Quick and nimble: (Sarcastic) More like a bear Rattler: Coach. Also rumble-tumble. Dowse on the chops: A blow to the face. than a squirrel. Rattling mumper: Beggar who targets coaches. Drawing the king’s picture: Forging coins. Quirks and quillets: Tricks and devices. Reader: Purse. Also bung, dummee. Go by the ground: A short person; also used for Shall have a swimmer: Plan to escape by boat Recruiting service: Robbery. . before an execution date. Repository: City or town jail. Handsome reward: A