Cant is one of those kooky, quaint four-letter words which have long since lost their power to offend. Like ‘culture’, the slipperiness of its meaning makes it almost impossible to define, and much of Ben Wilson’s annoyingly brilliant analysis of the period called by Byron ‘the age of cant’ could serve as an appendix to Raymond Williams’s Key Words. ‘To apply it to someone is to accuse them of sloppy thinking, if you are being kind, or, at the very worst, of a total lack of sincerity. In the former sense, cant (or humbug) is a language of borrowed sentiments … It is society’s clichés which infect the mind like the refrain of a popular song and are repeated without reflection.’ To some (such as Thomas Bowdler, whose expurgated edition of Shakespeare delighted the nation), the word ‘cant’ was simply a reminder to a foul-mouthed youth of the importance of politeness, or cleaning up the mess left after a party, while to others cant was synonymous with insincerity, hypocrisy, dogma, imposture, and jargon.
We have all been guilty of cant (hell, we are living in the age of ‘spin’, which is nothing more than cant’s babbling progeny), so why, Wilson asks, was the word ‘virtually an expletive’ in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century? Or, as Byron put it, why was cant