There are two main schools of thought on the origin of the word cant.
Derivation in Celtic linguistics
In Celtic linguistics, the derivation is normally seen to be from the Scottish Gaelic cainnt or Irish word caint (older spelling cainnt) "speech, talk". In this sense it is seen to have derived amongst the itinerant groups of people in Scotland and Ireland, hailing from both Irish/Scottish Gaelic and English-speaking backgrounds, ultimately developing as various creole languages. However, the various types of cant (Scottish/Irish) are mutually unintelligible to each other.
In Scotland there are two unrelated creol languages termed as "cant". Scottish Cant (a variant of Scots, Romani and Scottish Gaelic influences) is spoken by Lowland Gypsy groups. Highland Traveller's Cant (or Beurla Reagaird) is a Gaelic-based cant of the Indigenous Highland Traveller population. Both cants are mutually unintelligible with each other.
Derivation outside Celtic linguistics
Outside Goidelic circles, the derivation is normally seen to be from Latin cantāre "to sing" via Norman French canter. Within this derivation, the history of the word is seen to originally have referred to the chanting of friars, used in a disparaging way some time between the 12th and 15th centuries. Gradually the term was applied to the singsong of beggars and eventually a criminal jargon.
The thieves' cant was a feature of popular pamphlets and plays particularly between 1590 and 1615, but continued to feature in literature through the 18th century. There are questions about how genuinely the literature reflected vernacular use in the criminal underworld. A thief in 1839 claimed that the cant he had seen in print was nothing like the cant then used by gypsies, thieves and beggars. He also said that each of these used distinct vocabularies, which overlapped, the gypsies having a cant word for everything, and the beggars using a lower style than the thieves.
In June 2009 it was reported that inmates in one English prison were using "Elizabethan cant" as a means of communication that guards would not understand, although the words used are not part of the canon of recognised cant.
The word has also been used as a suffix to coin names for modern day jargons such as "medicant", a term used to refer to the type of language employed by members of the medical profession that is largely unintelligible to lay people.
- Adurgari, from Afghanistan
- Banjački, from Serbia
- Barallete, from Galicia, Spain
- Bargoens, from the Netherlands
- Bron from León and Asturias
- Beurla Reagaird, a Gaelic-based cant used by Highland Traveller community in Scotland
- Cockney Rhyming Slang, from England
- Fala dos arxinas, from Galicia, Spain
- Fenya from Russia
- Gacería, from Spain
- Germanía, from Spain
- Grypsera, from Poland
- Gyaru-moji, from Japan
- Klezmer-loshn, from Eastern Europe
- Lunfardo, from Argentina and Uruguay
- Javanais, from France
- Jejemon from the Philippines
- Louchébem, from France
- Miguxês and tiopês, from the emo, indie and scene kid subcultures of young netizen Brazilians
- Meshterski, from Bulgaria
- Månsing, from Sweden
- Padonkaffsky jargon from Runet
- Pajubá, in the travesti subculture in Brazil, latter expanded to LGBT in general
- Polari, a general term for a diverse but unrelated grouping of dialects or argots within the United Kingdom. Polari is used by various unrelated groups—including, but not limited to; actors, circus and fairground showmen, gay subculture, criminal underworld (criminals, prostitutes). The broad term Polari indicates a wide variety of discrete and secret communication which is group-specific, but would be unintelligible to the wider community including groups who speak other Polari cants, to prevent the outsider from understanding the users' conversations.
- Rotwelsch, from Germany
- Šatrovački, from the former Yugoslavia
- Scottish Cant a variant of Scots and Romani used by the Lowland Gypsies in Scotland
- Shelta, from the Irish traveller community in Ireland
- Sheng from Kenya
- Sa'an, based on Bengali from India
- Thieves' cant, from Britain
- Verlan, from France
- Xíriga, from Asturias, Spain
- McArthur, T. (ed.) The Oxford Companion to the English Language (1992) Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-214183-X
- Kirk, J. & Ó Baoill, D. Travellers and their Language (2002) Queen's University Belfast ISBN 0-85389-832-4
- Collins English Dictionary 21st Century Edition (2001) HarperCollins ISBN 0-00-472529-8
- Ribton-Turner, C. J. 1887 Vagrants and Vagrancy and Beggars and Begging, London, 1887, p.245, quoting an examination taken at Salford Gaol
- "Convicts use ye olde Elizabethan slang to smuggle drugs past guards into prison". Daily Mail. 2009-06-08. Retrieved 2009-06-25.
- Partridge, Eric (1937) Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English