In Canada, graduating students of engineering are presented with a hammered iron ring in an induction ceremony designed by Rudyard Kipling. The engineers’ rites are secret; although presumably no more menacing than Phi Beta Kappa, that most unthreatening of centuries-old secret societies, the idea of the Obligated Engineers is reminiscent of Masonic recognition symbols. Although Freemasonic mythology claims that the secret society dates back to Hiram, the apocryphal builder of Solomon’s temple, the rites and rituals seem more likely to have arisen with the stonemasons who travelled Europe building cathedrals. With no easy way of providing bona fides, the skilled laborers created secret means of identification — handshakes, words and phrases loaded with meaning — to prove that they were trained stoneworkers and engineers, master masons who could be trusted to work on a cathedral. Of course, given the explosion of secret societies in the eighteenth century, it’s possible that even that more prosaic explanation is so much romantic claptrap pasted onto a more modern origin. Symbolic means of identification, such as the fish used by persecuted Christians in ancient Rome and the liberty caps worn by American revolutionaries, are useful ways for persecuted groups to identify themselves. How much more useful is language? Subcultures tend to adopt slang to identify themselves and set themselves apart from outsiders; the grunge lexicon the Times once printed was a hoax, but a less ridiculous guide to slang among Seattle’s flannel and heroin set could have been assembled. And having a secret language has definite advantages when you’re breaking the law. thieves’ cant seems to have been at least partially real (if overhyped to sell Captain Grose‘s book). Amazingly, as recently as the 1960s, you could hear Polari, a mixture of gay slang with older theatrical and carny talk, on the BBC. The world is vastly better now that the love that dare not speak its name dares to speak its name, but Polari is now, like most dead languages, only for ritual use.