Dark Tongues: The Art of Rogues and Riddlers

Cover00Elizabeth Shambelan at Bookforum:

To speak is to know that language is amoral—equally congenial to truth and falsehood, clarity and circumlocution. And therein lies the impetus not only for everyday mendacity but also for artful systems of linguistic subterfuge. As Daniel Heller-Roazen observes, human beings seem to have an innate impulse to “break and scatter” language, to alter their native idioms in order to conceal, bewilder, and dissimulate. In his fascinating Dark Tongues—which might be construed as either a highly episodic history or a collection of case studies ranging across eras and cultures—Heller-Roazen investigates this tendency, paying particular attention to those instances when secret language becomes intertwined, if not interchangeable, with poetry.

He commences with an engrossing discussion of cant, introducing us to a gang of Burgundian bandits known as the Coquillars. In 1455, a prosecutor created a glossary of the Coquillars’ “refined” argot: “Jour is torture. . . . When one of them says, ‘Estoffe!’ it means that he is asking for his booty.” Asking for one’s booty by yelling “Stuff!” hardly seems refined, but to the prosecutor, the descriptor connoted sinister craftiness.

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