Barbara Boehm Miller
Fiction writer and creator of the character, Lola Rolls

Insider Languages of Outsiders

Posted By on Tuesday, October 8th, 2019

When people find out I have twin daughters, they often ask if the girls ever had a secret language, or, as it is more formally known, cryptophasia. The answer is no, which is nearly always a disappointment to the questioner. A firsthand account of a language so small and self-contained that it has only two speakers and is heard almost exclusively in a random suburban home would be much more satisfying. After reading though that cryptophasia is generally related to language delays, my fascination with twin language dimmed quite a bit.

Cants are also secret languages used by groups of people in a deliberate way to conceal information or to mislead outsiders. The exclusionary intent behind their use sets them apart from jargon and slang. Cants are usually employed by marginalized members of society. For example, Polari is an English-based cant once spoken in the gay subculture of Great Britain,where homosexual acts were fully punishable under criminal law almost until the end of the 1960s. A cant known as Swardspeak, based mostly on English, Spanish, and Tagalog, is still used in the Philippines among LGBT people as a way both to hide their identities from outsiders and to display them within their own community. Interestingly, a closely related variant of Polari was used among performers at travelling fun fairs in Great Britain.

Carnival people in the United States, however, have their own cant, the use of which has diminished as the nature of travelling carnivals has changed. As the seedy carnivals of years past with rigged games, objectionable freak displays, and interactive girl shows have given way to more above-board, mainstream, and family-friendly events, the need for secret communication among carnies has lessened quite a bit. Ciazarn, as this cant is called, consists of inserting infixes, such as “earz,” “eez,” or “iz,” into words. In fact, “Ciazarn” is derived from “carnie” with these types of infixes inserted.

Ciazarn also relied on an extensive range of terms to make it incomprehensible to outsiders. For example, a “pickled punk” was a deformed fetus preserved in a jar of formaldehyde and displayed to the public. In view though of the tricky legal and moral logistics of obtaining or displaying human remains, these “fetuses” were usually constructed from dolls or other materials and made to look as authentic as possible. In faking or gaffing (another great carnie term) the display, the extent of the punk’s aberration was limited only by the imagination of its creator.

The term “B.C.” was also used among carnies, as a way to warn each other of the need to “be cool,” to halt at once any sublegal behavior. The results of this admonishment were likely inconsistent given the term “hey Rube.” If a carnie was in a certain degree of distress, likely on the verge of having a physical altercation with a “mark,” i.e. a townsperson who could be fleeced for money, that carnie could call a “hey Rube,” and then any other carnie hearing the entreaty would join in the fight.

Cants, like these, appeal to the human mind and memory on a deep level. Who wouldn’t want the luxury of being able to communicate confidential information in the plain hearing of others or to talk about those others undetected even as they were listening to your words? Who wouldn’t want to have insider knowledge, to be in on the secret? Cants are reminiscent of the clubhouse passwords or elaborate handshakes of childhood, or the shorthand jokes and movie quotes that circulate in families, but they are the product of a darker truth as well. They owe their existence to the exclusion of groups that society tends to find distasteful, even as they create an inclusive realm for these same groups. In this way, cants can be viewed as a paradox: a linguistic phenomenon that both conceals and reveals.

Barbara Boehm Miller
Fiction Writer and Creator of the Character, Lola Rolls

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