The Carny & Sideshow Lingo Dictionary – Page D-I

Posted by on January 16, 2019

The Carny & Sideshow Lingo Dictionary – Page D-I


Carny Lingo A-C  D-I  J-P   Q-Z

Circus Slang     Vaudeville Slang

Dark Ride — A “haunted house” that you ride through. The animated scary surprises inside are known as “tricks” or “gags.”

Dealer — An agent who works a percentage game.

Deadball — A game ball (or two) which the agent leaves in the target basket when demonstrating a “bushel basket” game. The deadball(s) deaden the extra bounciness of the basket bottom, allowing thrown balls to remain in the basket. When the mark pays to play, all 3 balls are removed and thrown balls bounce out every time.

Dead Man — An extra anchor stake for a guy wire or banner line, grounded in especially soft earth.

Deuce Reader — An “Admission $2” sign.

Devil Baby — A gaffed exhibit, ostensibly a freak featuring hoofed feet, horns, fangs and claws, usually constructed to appear mummified or otherwise preserved.

Digger (or Crane) — A coin-op featuring flashy prizes heaped seemingly at random inside a glass case, with a claw device above guided by the customer to try to pick up the prize they want. It is possible to stock the best prizes in areas the claw can’t reach, or rig the claw to drop heavier prizes.

Dime Museum — A collection of specimens, exotic objects and live acts and performances, usually set up in an old store front. These were both the original museums and the original freak shows, most popular primarily in the 19th and early 20th Century. Present-day roadside museums are their descendants.

Ding — (1): The offer, to those customers already inside your show, of the chance to see a really special added attraction, not advertised on the outside, for an additional fee. The blade box illusion is a classic ding (“Come up and see how she fits in there for just a quarter – she couldn’t do it if she had any clothes on”) (2): Expenses (over and above the percentage) paid to the carnival operator, such as charges for utilities, trash collection, insurance, sales tax, I.D. badges, parking space for your camper or trailer, another fee to park your car, security, inspection fees, advertising, official shirts, and tip to the lot manager. You might have to pay the operator’s man to sell tickets, since they don’t trust you. And, of course, they didn’t tell you this in advance, nor did they tell you about the “pay one price for everything” promotion (so most of the crowd will be riding all day instead of buying tickets to your show) and somehow the operator’s percentage, quoted to you as 50% of your gross, has mysteriously jumped to 57% and the guy who told you 50% is nowhere to be found. And those “inside sales”? Not this time, unless you want to pay 57% of that money too. And on and on… You don’t like it? Well, you’re now blocked in by rides and trucks, and you’re unable to leave.

Ding Show — I remember going into an “absolutely free” show in Atlantic City in the 1960s. Inside, before getting to see “the real stuff,” I was stopped at a gateway by the steely glare of the proprietor, saying “Aren’t you going to give a contribution?” No mention of what I was contributing to, but for a buck I got to see a series of cardboard dioramas depicting great naval battles, obtained free from the local Navy recruiting office. A ding show is absolutely free, except that you aren’t getting out without being strong-armed for a “contribution.”

Direct Sales — Concessions where a customer can buy a souvenir or other similar item. Sometimes, in areas where such merchandise is rarely available, things like belt buckles custom-engraved with your name sell very well.

Do-gooders — Individuals who are self-righteously convinced that the carnival business is too disreputable to allow, that all show animals are certainly being mistreated, and that the display of human oddities is demeaning and immoral. They have succeeded in getting many restrictive laws and regulations passed, resulting in a lack of show work for freaks, who almost universally disdain do-gooders and their motives.

Dodge-‘Em Cars — The bumper-car ride.

Dog House — An enclosed control booth occupied by the ride jock. 

Dollar Day — (See “ding” above) One of the hated “hidden costs” that a showman may be forced to accept, offered as a promotion to the public by fair sponsors: $1 parking, $1 admission, $1 rides. You may have the most spectacular ride on the lot, but on Dollar Day everybody rides for a buck, and you can’t “opt out” even if your regular charge is $2 or $3 or more. 

Donniker — A rest room or toilet. Derived from ‘dunnekin,’ in common use among lower-class Britons in the 1700s meaning ‘outhouse.’ Probably derived from ‘dung’ and “-kin”, a suffix referring to a small container or private room (many euphemisms for ‘bathroom’ refer to it as a ‘closet’ or ‘the small room’). In Australian slang today, an outhouse is a “dunny”.

Donniker Joint, Donniker Hole — A particularly unfavorably placed joint, or unfavorable place to locate a joint. A bit like being seated next to the kitchen or restroom door in a restaurant. Also “Larry loc,” from “larry”, meaning anything broken.

Double — A two-performer medicine show bit; or to perform more than one role. Also, a $20 bill.

Drag the Midway — The practice of going between your attraction and the gate and enticing people to come directly to your joint, show or ride.

D.Q. — Short for “disqualified” (probably from wrestling parlance). To be thrown off the lot and ordered not to return. Might happen to a rowdy mark or to a worker who steals or messes with something he should leave alone, or causes more problems than he’s worth. An employee fired from one joint can consider himself d-q’d, because no one else will hire him.

Draw — (1) Money, a small percentage of total pay, advanced nightly to the ride help. Give them too big a draw and they’ll come back tomorrow drunk, if they come back at all. (2) An outside talker’s inducement for the tip to pack together close to the bally platform – “Come in closer and look at the hole right here in the stage. If you’re standing too far back, you won’t be able to see the hole. I’m going to need everyone to come in closer so everyone can see this little hole right here in the stage…”

Drop the Awnings — To close down a joint after the night’s work is done.

Drop Counter Box — Ticket box with a specially-rigged counter designed to drop a portion of the change a ticket-buying mark is due into a hidden box as it is pushed toward the buyer. 

Dropcase — (1) A briefcase-size case which opened to reveal a bagatelle betting game (a board with an array of pins on which you roll down coins or marbles into slots at the bottom indicating prizes). It was used by street grifters (who almost always rigged the game). (2) A briefcase or suitcase equipped with folding legs often used by street vendors to display their wares. The pitchman’s “keister and tripe” was a different arrangement for the same task.

Drop-Offs — Banners in a lengthy banner line for which there is no room at the current engagement.

Drug Abuse Show — An act where the performer supposedly has been driven insane, become deformed or mutilated, or has even given birth to a hideous mutant baby because of drug abuse. It’s a basic geek or “wild man” show dressed with a modern theme. The pitch or banner would usually say something like “See the shocking victim of drug abuse!”

Ducat (sometimes ‘ducket’) — A free game ticket or other free pass to something, dispensed either as an enticement to play or as a gift to cool down a disgruntled player. Give an unhappy man a ducat to the girl show and his attitude may improve … especially when the girl show operator, seeing the ducat, points the customer out for a little special attention from the girls. The agent who gave out the ducat will get a bill from the girl show for ‘services rendered.’ Sometimes also used to refer to money.

Duck Pond — Game in which customer selects a numbered toy duck from among those floating around in a circulating stream. Can be run straight or as an alibi store (“See, kid, those red numbers mean a prize from the bottom shelf only.”) Or those 6’s (the giant stuffed dog) become 9’s (a tiny plastic soldier).

Duke — When a shill (game operator’s employee posing as a member of the crowd) persuades someone to play, especially to play a rigged game. The shill gets a fee for this, often a percentage of what the agent extracts from the mark.

Duke Shot — A demonstration game-shot made by the operator of an unwinnable game, or by the shill, to convince the mark that the game can be won.

Duker — A person handing out “Good for One Free Game” tickets (see ‘Duke’ above). Commonly used to get the mark to try a build-up game requiring many plays.

Dukkering — Gypsy fortunetelling. This is a word directly from the most common of the Romany languages indicating fortunetelling conducted by Gypsies in the traditional Gypsy style. From a recent forum post: “There’s a very good reason I don’t do a lot of dukkering anymore. People act like they’re doing YOU a favor for letting you pull out your cards (or your tea leaves, or whatever). Just got sick of the hassle.”

Educated — Knowledgeable. A mark who has been “with it” at some point in life is probably too ‘educated’ for the game.

Eli — Ferris wheel. After the Eli Bridge Company, an early maker of portable wheels.

Electric Chair Act — An act, often called “The Human Dynamo” or “Electra”, in which the performer appears to be immune to the effects of electricity. Actually a phenomenon of high voltage, high frequency, low amperage electricity which permits an ungrounded person to light neon or fluorescent tubes at a touch, and do other similar stunts without being harmed. Some of these props operate like Tesla coils. The widespread availability of second-hand “quack” medical devices suitable for powering this phenomenon (the Violet Ray device is classic) made it easy for carny electricians to rig the gaff, but this is a very dangerous stunt if done wrong. See Ray Bradbury’s classic fantasy novel “Something Wicked This Way Comes” for a wonderful depiction of this act.

End — The percentage of the gross a paid agent gets from the owner of the joint.

Emby — A particularly gullible mark.

Fair Date — An attraction booked to draw crowds to a fair. Often big-name concerts, stunt driving shows, or wrestling matches. “Kenny Rogers is playing a fair date on the 15th” means that he will be a special featured attraction at [whichever] fair on that day.

Fairbank — When the agent allows the player to think the agent has “cheated” himself, giving the player an (illusory) advantage. He may allow the player to win a small initial game, give him an extra ball, miscount the score in the player’s favor, all to get the player play longer in hope of winning big.

Fakir — The “Indian Fakir” was an early embodiment of the “Blockhead” and similar modern performers. With his “lifelong study of mystical Hindoo yoga,” he might lie on a bed of nails, swallow swords, eat fire, etc. The word does not mean “faker,” but comes from the Arabic “faqir”, literally meaning a poor man (from “faqr” meaning “poverty”). A Muslim holy man who lived by begging, a fakir (like religious ascetics all over the world) might engage in stunts to show his piety and increase his income from begging. 

Fast and Loose — One of the ‘big three’ dishonest street games sometimes played on the long-ago carnival lot (the others are the ‘shell game’ and ‘three-card monte’). Fast and loose is played, like the other two, on a small portable tabletop (or as sailors used to refer to it, ‘on the barrelhead’). A long circle of necklace-chain is laid down in a complex series of loops, and the mark puts his finger into a loop he believes will remain caught on his finger when the chain is lifted. But the grifter has a way of laying the chain to control whether any loop becomes ‘fast’ on the player’s finger, or comes ‘loose’. A skilled operator can put on a performance that attracts swiftly-escalating bets and walk away with big money every time. Also called ‘grandmother’s necklace’. A similar game, played with a rolled-up belt, is called ‘the strap’. 

Fast Count — A score tallied so quickly by the agent that the player cannot confirm the result.

Feature — A game that an agent operates especially well, his specialty.

Fence-to-Fence Operation — A carnival where the carnival management also owns all of the concessions and rides.

Fireball Show — A carnival of the most disreputable sort, full of dishonest games, really strong kootch shows and the like. Also a “Burn’em Up Outfit.”

First Call — The right to a favored spot on the midway. Strategically good placement (see “first on the right”) can mean the difference between profit and poverty. Who gets first call can be affected by ownership (joints owned by the show definitely get good holes) and how much you kick back to the layout man.

First Count — The right to be the first person to count the tickets or money, on the theory that the first count is most likely to be the most accurate and honest count (unless, of course, they’ve been rehashing some of the tickets). Also a good opportunity to divert some of the funds into your own pocket.

First of May — A novice performer or worker in his first season. Shows usually play the season’s opening spot on the first of May, so the term means someone “green” who is new to carnival life.

First on the Right — The first ‘hole’ or two on the midway just to the right of the entrance. The sweetest loc (location) for most joints, as joints in that location are usually the first ones the crowd gets to. 

Fix or Ice — A payoff to operate without too much scrutiny from authorities, either as “protection money” to keep the police from shutting you down even though you’re operating legally, or as a bribe to allow you to operate fixed games and ‘strong’ shows. Also ‘patch,’ which is also the term used for the person who puts in the fix with the local authorities. “Sheriff, we need a couple of your men to work off-duty security. Some of our games are a little tough, but we don’t play to no kids. If a player feels he’s been cheated have your men bring them to me and I will personally take care of any problem. By the way, we want to donate this $500 to your favorite charity, I’m sure you’ll see that they get it.” Many other euphemisms have been heard, like ‘smice’ or (here it comes again) ‘ding’.

Flag’s Up — Signal that the cookhouse is open.

Flash (n) — Your best-looking prizes, arrayed to catch the eye of the crowd. ‘Hard flash’ is large and expensive-looking prizes. These items may be completely impossible to win, the lesser prizes being hidden under the counter. Flash is also a verb: “to flash your joint”, to make your joint more visible and attractive, and/or to set up an attractive display of prizes. One former carny said, “Flash is everything, the prizes you put out there and the way they are arranged.” In Britain, prizes are “swag” and setting them up where customers will be drawn to your joint is “swagging”.

Flasher — A game using electronics or lights as indicators of the game’s result, bypassing local laws against mechanical wheels or similar devices.

Flat Ride — A gentle ride that stays at ground level, like a kiddie car or boat ride. 

Flat Store or Flat Joint — A game at which the agent has total control over winning or losing. Usually a game at which money is the prize rather than goods. So called because the “wheel of fortune” or whatever other rig is played there, once set vertically for all to see, is now set flat horizontally so that only the player and the agent can see it. After you lose a bunch of money they might throw you some minor prize to get rid of you. “Almost all of the carnies don’t like the flatties because you can’t win at their game and they take people for lots of money. I have seen a flattie take people for a week’s pay, their car, sometimes even their home. There is no way any other type of agent comes close to making the money a flattie does.” (Anonymous) “Always leave the mark with a dollar for gas”, say some carnies.

Flatten — To stop operating a game in a winnable fashion (in which the agent can generally keep a pretty high percentage of the income by chance alone) and start working as a flat store (in which the operator can keep it all). The operator might have peeked an especially attractive poke and decided not to chance losing any of the mark’s money.

Flattie — The operator of a Flat Joint or any less-than-legal game.

Flea Circus — An exhibit purporting to display “trained fleas” pulling wagons, swinging on swings, etc. There are almost always actually no fleas at all. The operator may have any number of ways to make tiny props appear to move by “flea power,” from elaborate hidden miniature mechanisms (operating the props as though the fleas were moving them) and hidden magnets animating black iron shavings. Some un-gaffed flea circuses using real fleas exist, and fleas often display individual preferences (running or jumping) and it is said that they can be harnessed with tiny wires and affected by aromatic repellents and attractants. If, like most, a flea circus is played on a very thick solid base, it is certainly a mechanical illusion.

Flea Powder — Pitchman’s term for powdered medicines. (Refers to antique product to kill fleas. On people, not dogs. It’s sad that I have to explain this.)

Floater — An operator who travels from one carnival to another.

Floss — Pure sugar heated and spun in a special machine into a fluffy cotton-like confection, which is caught in the air and wound around a paper cone. Best when made fresh to order, which is also a strong visual attraction. “Candy floss” is the industry name for what the public calls “cotton candy”. Machines are sold for making this at home, but the result is poor.

Flukum — Any mysterious liquid, from homemade liniment to hacked-together Sno-Kone flavoring.

Flying Jenny — Antique “pocket-size” version of the carousel, without a platform or decorative center, and no up-and-down movements of the horses. Much like the original medieval carousels used to train for jousting.

Fool the Guesser — See “A&S Man”

For It — Often paired with “With It”. Describes someone who doesn’t travel or work in the carnival but is connected in some way.

Forty Miler — Newcomer to circus or carnival life, who (metaphorically speaking) never travels farther than 40 miles away from their home. Alternately, a performer or jointee who gets all the work he needs without traveling far from home.

Forty-Nine Camp (or Joint) — A fairground dance hall, where female employees would dance with customers for money, and steer clients to the bar.

Four-Way Joint — Same as “a center joint”, a joint that can be approached from all four sides.

(to) Frame a Show or Joint — To build a new show or joint, or to gather a medicine-show cast.

Freak — A person with a physical anomaly, like an extra or distorted limb, a giant, or a pair of conjoined twins. Showmen classify freaks as “born freaks” who have been different from birth, “made freaks” like tattooed or fat people, and “gaffed freaks” who fake their differences. Although the word “freak” is often used as an epithet, those “human oddities” who display their differences for a job are not offended by the word or by the occupation, and are not in need of protection or laws to forbid their display. As Samantha X said introducing the 999 Eyes Freakshow, “There is nothing wrong with any of our performers. They are nature’s art, genetic diversity in its finest form. Throw away the word ‘disabled’ and reclaim the word ‘freak’.”

Freak Show — A show where human odditiesdisplayed themselves (often selling photos, Bibles or other memorabilia).

Front — Generally, the outside of a show (as in “show front”, “talking the front”, etc). A “200-foot front” means the entrance and banner line of your show stretches along 200 feet of the midway. Locations on the midway are usually paid for by the number of front feet (in addition to many other dings). A center joint is sometimes charged for two sides, sometimes all four.

Front End — The place on the midway, closer to the gate, that has games and concessions, since the large rides and shows are generally located at the farthest part of the midway and are called ” the Back End”.

G-Top or gee-top — The “G” is for “gambling.” An “after-hours club” open only to carnies. A combined convenience store, bar, snack stand and casino. The gambling might be just a friendly (but wary) game of poker, or it might be organized and more elaborate. When the lights go out on the wheel, signaling that the lot is closed for the night, the G-top starts filling up. One former carny said, “You haven’t played games unless you’ve played with people who do it all day for a living! … I’ve seen people lose a whole week’s pay in 10 minutes — cars they worked a year for, the money they were going to eat on tomorrow. … That’s how you learn the “tricks of the trade”, in the G-Top.”

G-Wheel — A rigged wheel of fortune — ‘g’ stands for ‘gaff’.

Gadget — Girl-show slang for a “g-string.”

Gadget Show — A midway attraction featuring mechanical novelties, like a miniature animated village or circus parade, usually housed in a trailer.

Gaff — The mechanism by which a game is secretly controlled or ‘faked’. “The game is gaffed” is sometimes expressed as “the game is G’d”. Along with “gimmick,” this term is still used by magicians to indicate the secret apparatus by which a magic trick works. A gaff may also refer to a fake freak exhibit, like a “pygmy mummy” made of rubber and cotton in someone’s kitchen.

Gaff Banner — A very attractive banner promising a world of wonders and a plethora of famous attractions … with clever wording like “Past and Present” indicating that few (or none) of the attractions was actually there in the flesh. Photographs and other “museum” exhibits might show and tell you all about famous freaks.

Garbage — Cheap souvenirs sold on the midway (pennants, balloons, hats, etc.)

Garbage Joint — The souvenir or novelty stand, such as a joint selling jewelry and engraving it to the customer’s order. See “direct sales” and “country store”.

Gazoonie — The lowest form of carny, the itinerant day laborers who come and go at the drop of a hat. Also refers to a very young and inexperienced worker who probably won’t be able to take the hard work and will be gone in a few days.

Geek — An unskilled performer whose performance consists of shocking, repulsive and repugnant acts. This “lowest of the low” member of the carny trade would commonly bite the head off a living chicken or snake. Some distinguish between “ordinary geeks” who pretend to be wild men or drug burnouts, and “glomming geeks” who actually bite the heads off live chickens and the like. When a geek was on the bally platform, sometimes a shill (usually a woman) was paid to faint at the sight of the geek’s stunts, to draw a crowd’s interest. See the 1949 movie “Nightmare Alley” for a good geek story (and for an excellent depiction of the mentalist’s technique of “cold reading”). In later years the geek show turned into a “see the pitiful victim of drug abuse” show. “Geek” as a verb (“he geeked”) is one of several terms in use among wrestlers meaning to intentionally cut oneself to draw blood.

Genny (pronounced “jenny”) — The generator truck. (See “Light Plant”).

GTFM — You’ve found the carny’s reason for being: “Get The Fuckin’ Money”.

Giant Rat — The sideshow’s “giant rat,” often billed as “giant killer rats from the Amazon,” usually capybaras, gentle animals but very high-maintenance. They produce incredible amounts of waste and require constant care. Showmen found that capys drew good crowds, but if they delegated the animal care they soon had a dead animal, and the animal care would eat up their time. Most operators switched to using nutrias. “These killer rats feasted on the flesh of dead American soldiers in Vietnam!”

Gibtown — Gibsonton, Florida, near Tampa. Many show people flocked to Gibtown as a retirement spot or winter quarters. In addition to the agreeable winter climate, Gibsonton had unique zoning laws that allowed residents to keep elephants, circus trailers and other show paraphernalia on their residential property. Pioneered by Jeannie (the “half-girl”) and Al Tomaini (the giant), a married couple who retired from show business to open “Giant’s Camp” fishing camp there.

Gig — To take all of a player’s money in one short session instead of leading him to increasing losses on the belief that he’ll probably win in just one more try. Considered crude by more skilled carnies.

Gig Artist — An agent who lacks the skill to remove all of a mark’s money without causing a beef, generally because he gets it all too quickly.

Girl in Fish Bowl (“Living Mermaid”) — An illusion show: the viewer looks into the “fish bowl” to see a tiny girl, often with a fish tail, apparently living underwater.

Girl Show — A show in which pretty women are the primary attraction. In practice, “pretty” was not mandatory as long as all the expected body parts were there. These shows could range from the “revue” (such as a “Broadway Revue” with fully-clothed performers) to the racier “kootch” or “hootchie-kootchie” show (a strip show, and … hey! Did you see what she did with [uh … that part of her body]?) Often, these shows may to play either “strong” (nude, and to varying degrees of raunchiness) or partly or fully clothed. A girl show couldn’t play without a “patch” or “fixer” on the lot, and demand was sometimes so strong that a large carnival might have as many as eight girl shows. In such an abundance, the shows might try to stand out by adopting a theme: “Oriental” (belly dancers, or at least belly-dance-themed), “Hawaiian” (sexy hula dancers), or “Rhumba Shows” (Latin themed), and of course in the days of segregation there might also be a black girl show (“Jig Show,” q.v.).

Girl-to-Gorilla Show — An all-time moneymaker, this illusion show features a girl being changed (magically or “scientifically”) into a savage gorilla, which then goes wild, breaks out of its cage and jumps out at the audience, frightening the crowd away. It uses a mirror, usually just a sliding pane of glass like a shower door, showing the audience either the girl behind the glass or the gorilla-suited actor reflected at a 90-degree angle, whichever is more brightly lit. There are variations on the theme, like skeleton-to-vampire or in older times, “Galatea” (referring to the myth of Pygmalion the sculptor and Galatea, the statue he brought to life). Simple upkeep and a little showmanship can make this show really frightening, but I have never seen it done with even the minimal care needed to arouse anything but disappointment. “Zambora, the ape girl, the ape girl, she’s alive! Only the brave are invited to see the ape girl! She is locked in a solid steel cage for your protection, and under bright lights you’ll see the change begin: her forehead will begin to recede, her eyebrows will protrude, fangs will begin to grow in her mouth, and her clothes will fall away from her body! A heavy coat of hair will growing from every square inch of her skin, the long straggly hair of a gorilla!”

Glass Bender — A midway joint craftsman who manufactures knicknacks (little unicorns and the like) from glass rods using a propane torch. Often seen these days at booths in shopping malls.

Glass House — a Hall of Mirrors attraction.

Go Wrong — When an agent loses money despite his skill at keeping the game from being won.

Going South — Stealing money (sometimes you put it into the apron to be counted, other times you ‘go south’ with it.)

Grab Joint or Grease Joint — An eating concession in which the customer takes away food served directly over the counter.

Grafters — Pitchmen.

Grease — Any salve being pitched.

Green Help — New, inexperienced workers. Sometimes you just gotta have a warm body to work, but they rarely come with brains and either can’t (or won’t) do the job, or they make expensive mistakes.

Grifters — A mainstream word from the early 20th century, describing any scam artist. The crooked game operators, short change artists, clothesline robbers, shoplifters (“merchandise boosters”), pickpockets and all other types of criminals associated with some carnivals.

Grind — The compelling and rhythmic verbal conclusion of the “outside talker’s” spiel, meant to move the patrons into the show. After the crowd (“tip”) gathers and pauses to listen, the grind is the “call to action” that motivates them to buy a ticket. Also means to stay in the joint and work even though there’s almost no business.

Grind Show — A show or attraction the customer can walk through and see at any time without being guided through. It has no beginning or end time; the front men and ticket sellers just “grind away” all day. Most of the shows on carnival midways today are grind shows, the bally blaring over the midway from an audiotape loop and sound system.

Grind Store — Usually a small game that needs a lot of action to make a profit, generally one like a glass plate pitch that operates on a constant flow of small change.

Grinder, Grind Man — Before the days of endless tapes luring people into grind shows, the “grind man,” usually the ticket seller, would give a rhythmic and continuous spiel. Considered a less-skilled job than “outside talker,” since the grind man’s chant was much less complex than a full bally.

Grocery Wheel, Ham & Bacon Wheel — A “wheel of fortune” joint in which lucky winners won grocery items. A relic of older days, still popular at charity events outside the working carnival setting.

Ground Score — Money or other goodies found while “reading the midway.”

Group game — A game in which more then one player participates, getting fees from several players but giving a prize only to one ‘winner’.

Gunner — A confederate who helps run a Six Cat.

Half-and-Half — A hermaphrodite, a very valuable blowoff attraction often forbidden by local authorities. Some were real freaks, others were “made” by (at the least) shaving and making up one side of the body, or by the use of hormones to grow breasts so a performer born male could also display his upper “female” half. “Behind this curtain you are going to see the most bizarre attraction you have ever seen, and I’m going to introduce her to you all right now. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Albert-Alberta. This beautiful lady is our star attraction, but she is so unusual we are banned from advertising her on the outside. And since she is not advertised on the outside, she is not included in your general admission ticket, there is an extra charge for what you are about to see. We make no apology for this policy, because when Albert-Alberta goes behind this curtain, and you go with her, you are going to view her entire body, and you will plainly see that she is, in fact, a hermaphrodite. You’ve heard your neighbors talking about the half man/half woman, but Albert-Alberta is not half man/half woman … she is all man and all woman. You will see her body in its entirety, as bare as my right hand that you see before you right here. Now you must be between 18 and 80 years old to enter, because if you’re under 18 you wouldn’t understand it, and if you’re over 80 you couldn’t stand it. When you enter I want you to go right up to the edge of the stage. Get as close as you can so that you can see Albert-Alberta’s body in every detail as she displays herself to you, unadorned, unashamed, unlike anything you have ever seen before. The fee for this attraction is 25 cents, it’s time to go in right now. And those of you who are under 18 years of age, please step down to the other end of the tent where you will be entertained by our magician on the main stage.”

Handle — How a game is rigged. Also used to mean the nickname you go by.

Hanky-Pank — A game where every player wins a prize every time. The charge per play more than equals the cost of the prize, so an agent can lose all day and still make a profit. A 5¢ prize dispensed for every 50¢ play adds up to big profits! A mark who wins once can win a tiny plush, and then have an incentive to play more and trade in his small prizes for one larger prize.

Hard Cash — Refers to all change, nickels, dimes, quarters, fifty-cent piece or loonie (Canadian dollar coin.)

Hawker — A strolling refreshment or souvenir merchant, peddler of lemonade, candy, pretzels and other edibles (more often called a “butcher”).

Headless Illusion — Illusion show where a living ‘headless’ person is displayed. It’s a simple illusion done with mirrors, using the same principle (but achieving exactly the opposite effect) as the “Spidora” illusion. Usually pitched as a ‘medical miracle’ following a tragic accident.

Heat — Problems, arguments or battles between the show, or its people, and townsfolk. Most heat was caused by the show conducting illegal activities, but sometimes an outfit “burning the lot” ahead of your perfectly fair “Sunday School” operation could leave a lot of heat for you.

Heat Merchant — A carny whose personality and actions arouse so many complaints from the patrons that local authorities harass the entire carnival.

Heat Score — A sum of money extracted from a mark at the cost of some heat (“Looks like I pushed this guy too far.”)

Hell Drivers — Fairground automobile thrill show involving extreme stunts like jumps, crashes through flaming walls, and more. Some shows featured motorcycle riders speeding around and up the vertical walls of water-tank-like structures, held up by centrifugal force. 

Herald — Advertisement printed in immense quantities on newsprint

(usually 9″x20″), intended to be handed to individuals or left on car windshields, left at the front doors of houses, etc.

Hey Rube! — In the ‘old days,’ a call for help when a carny encountered more trouble with outsiders than he can handle alone. These days, ‘hey rube’ still works, but it’s more likely to be “It’s a clem!” or “wrang” or simply “fight!”

High Grass — Slang for a particularly out-of-the-way rural area.

High Pitch — A sales pitch (generally for medicine) delivered from a raised platform.

High Striker — Classic carnival game: A bell atop a high (sometimes 30-foot) support lined with lights and graded from “wimp” at the bottom to “he-man” near the top. Use a heavy maul to strike the lever at the bottom, and see if you are strong enough to send the weight (“follower”) up the wire to hit the bell. Often the operator could, by leaning against a guy wire, slacken the wire leading to the bell, preventing the follower from traveling all the way to the top.

Hold Out, “H.O.” — To steal from the boss by

“forgetting” to give him part of the cash. It’s often assumed that you’d better do it to him, because he’s certainly going to do it to you.

Hole — A place on the lot to put your joint, particularly (but not exclusively) if you have a center joint and need an open area. You would go to the lot man and say “I have a 20×20 center joint, do you have a hole?” Also used to mean a non-competing vacancy for your type of concession (there might not be a hole for you if there were enough of your type of concessions already on the lot.) If you are an agent looking for a job you show up on the lot and say “I’m looking for a hole.” How many holes a joint occupies is based on its frontage. A 16′ joint usually takes four ‘holes’.

Hoop-La — A game in which prizes are displayed atop wooden blocks, and won by throwing a wooden hoop entirely over the prize and the block so that the hoop rests on the tabletop. The blocks are shaped to be larger than they appear, making a winning throw difficult or even impossible.

(to) Hopscotch — To book your joint at various individual dates throughout the season, playing your choice of events rather than traveling with a single carnival. Agents who don’t own joints sometimes also hopscotch, doing the job they love for other owners at other carnivals.

Hot Snake — A term (also used in zoos) for a poisonous snake.

Human Pincushion — An act in which the performer sticks sharp objects into his flesh. Also known as “Fakirs,” from the Indian term. The secret to this act (like the secret to many sideshow acts) is that there is no secret. Puncturing one’s flesh is painful, but less so than the audience thinks; you can learn to tolerate the pain.

Human Skeleton — Human oddity who is extremely emaciated from a disease or muscular disorder.

Human Torso or Half-Man — Human oddity born without legs, or without arms or legs.

Ikey Heyman Axle — A gaff for a wheel of fortune; a secret friction brake on the axle stops the wheel wherever the agent wants.

Illusion Show — A show consisting solely of illusions, like Headless Girl, Spidora, Mermaid, Snake Girl, etc. The attraction appears to be something remarkable, but is actually a magic illusion.

Independent Midway — On some engagements a single carnival owner, who has booked rides, games, shows and food concessions to travel with the carnival for the season, may not have contractual control of the entire lot (“fence to fence”). Then the local sponsors can rent spaces to others: booths for the Girl Scouts to sell cookies, hot dog stands run by the Lions, as well as rides, games and shows who play only independent stands. These independent operators may be as honest as the Girl Scouts or they may, unbeknownst to the sponsor, be crooked. Either way, they operate entirely free from the supervision of the major carnival (which has a reputation to protect). The independent area is usually fenced off from the carnival and may not even charge admission, but the public doesn’t know about the business arrangement; they just know that a game on that lot cheated them, and they blame the big show. Additionally, independent operators draw business away from the big show and its concessions and attractions.

p style=”text-indent: 0″>Indiana Circle – Reluctance of towners to appear to let their neighbors see that they are attracted to the circus side show curiosities. It is a notably vacant area in front of the side show bally stand, with the front row of the watching crowd some distance away. Until the Indiana circle is broken up, no one seems willing to be the first to step forward to buy a ticket. A shill is often needed to step up so others will foillow..

Inside Man — The agent operating a game that depends on an “outside man” to build up business.

Inside Money — The cash the sideshow operator gets from dings, blowoffs, pitches, sales, everything but the ticket price which is “outside money”.

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Circus Slang    Vaudeville Slang

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