This essay examines and unravels the ties between criminal behaviour and the cant dialect in nineteenth-century New York, as sketched by George W. Matsell’s Vocabulum. By deploying a theoretical framework rooted in Jacques Derrida's exploration of the Babel myth, I expose how Matsell’s supposed documentation of a total language is meritless. Examining literature published contemporaneously with the Vocabulum, I highlight the recurring linkage of working-class dialects and crime, noting how Matsell’s specious lexicon played upon bourgeois prejudices that linked poverty and delinquency. By strategically distorting recognizable phrases and slang, Matsell’s attempt to expose the criminal underbelly of New York documents actual language, but language that has been narrowed in scope and heavily manipulated in an attempt to represent criminals as a particular class of people with a particular common language.
George Washington Matsell; Vocabulum; Babel; Rogue’s Lexicon; cant; slang; Flash; nineteenth-century New York; Jacques Derrida; “Des tours de Babel”