The Peculiar Cant of Ciazarn

May 15, 2009 at 5:35 pm (Carnival, Exclusive Societies, Linguistics, Modern World) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

It is not uncommon for a specialized vocabulary to be spoken amongst members of a group united by profession. Sailors, soldiers, actors, and doctors all regularly speak words and phrases that are rarely, if ever, used by lay people. But only seldom throughout history does one find groups of people among whom nuanced and extensive systems of secretive slang, known as cants, have emerged. One of my favorite such bodies of slang is the cant, known as Ciazarn, spoken by American carnival workers (carnies), during the first half of the 20th century.

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The word Ciazarn itself (pronounced KEY-uh-zarn) illustrates the mechanics of this cant. In order to convert a normal word into Ciazarn, extra syllables, usually consisting of i, a, and z sounds, are added into the middle of the word. Carny becomes key-uh-ZAR-nee, hence the name of the cant. Another example is the word gimmick which, in Ciazarn, is pronounced as gee-ya-ZIM-ick. The rules of this cant are simple enough, but when spoken rapidly it allowed carnies to openly converse with one another without being understood by the carnival patrons. When coupled with an extensive vocabulary of additional slang terms, this linguistic contortion allowed the carnies to easily collude in bilking rubes.

It should be noted that some contemporary hip-hop slang follows similar guidelines. In the early 21st century, rappers Snoop Dogg and Jay Z popularized the insertion of “izzle” into the middle of words. Perhaps the most well-known example of this is the phrase “fo shizzle”, which is a modified version of “for sure”. This is very close to the Ciazarn version of the phrase, which would have been pronounced “for SHE-uh-zor”. Another popular cant used in modern English is Pig Latin, which follows a distinct yet similarly simple set of rules for word alteration. Pig Latin differs in that it requires a rearrangement of the word’s vowels with an “ay” sound added on the end, “sure” being pronounced “uhr-shay”,

See-uh-zum Fee-uh-zurther Re-uh-zeading:

A remarkably extensive dictionary of Carny slang (I respectfully draw your attention to “geek”, “half-and-half”, and “raghead”)

An article about Parlyaree, a cant spoken among members of the British gay subculture during the 1950s and 1960s (some of the phrases remind me of Anthony Burgess’ Nadsat, mentioned in a previous entry)

A compendium of Vaudeville slang that is certainly worth reading

A list of various cants, along with links to articles about them

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