Sunday, December 27, 2009


One of those words I used recently without really knowing what the heck I was saying. Sure, I probably use it more or less accurately in a sentence. "There was the usual cant about tolerance," for instance. I think I could easily substitute "claptrap" for "cant" in any sentence I would use it in, but it probably means something more like a rote answer or the party line. However, perhaps its definition and origins will prove more complicated...

So I'm pretty on the mark with this one. Princeton's wordnetweb has it as "buzzword: stock phrases that have become nonsense through endless repetition". It apparently often shows up in the context of religion or morality, where doubtless there are more platitudes than in many bodies of knowledge. I was interested to find a secondary meaning--well, there are many meanings of cant that have nothing to do with this definition, actually, but not all are to the point here-- that of "slang" or "argot", or specialized language intelligible only to those in a closed society. My particular interest comes from a post on argot and related words that I did some time ago and that I had to look up just to make sure I hadn't already covered this. (It's going to happen sometime here, and when it does, it will be deeply discouraging.) "Cant" should have been included in that post, but was not.

I wondered as I contemplated this word if it was related to "chant", and apparently it is. "Cant" comes from the Anglo-Norman, where it meant "singing" or "song". My guess is that our current usage of "cant" stems from the sing-song nature of droned phrases that no one is really listening to anymore--not even the speakers themselves.


  1. Seana,

    I love reading this blog, not only because I learn new words or correct my fuzzy understanding of them, but also for observations like this:

    "where doubtless there are more platitudes than in many bodies of knowledge"

    Good stuff, and right on the mark IMHO.

  2. Thank you, Brian--that's very kind. I'm glad you're finding a bit of time to hit the blogs despite that nocturnal being who's recently come to dwell with you.

    I remember my sister reading to me from an article on new parenting that the new parent would find themselves getting by on less sleep than they ever thought possible. Hope Fiona doesn't prove the theory right.

  3. Seana,

    No, I think the theory is sound. You just start operating on less sleep, somehow.

    You know how they say college doesn't prepare you for the "real world," whatever that means? Well, as an undergrad, I got by on 4 or 5 hours sleep every night as a junior and senior, except on the occasional weekend where I slept in.

    That college experience is helping a lot right now!!! ;)