Circus Lingo Dictionary
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Circus Slang Vaudeville Slang
24-hour Man — Employee who travels the route 24 hours before the rest of the circus, putting up roadside arrows to direct travel and making sure the lot is ready.
Aba-daba — Any dessert served in the cookhouse.
Advance — Teams of employees traveling ahead of the circus route to put up posters and arrange for advertising, often visiting each town several times (four weeks, two weeks and one week before the show.) They often traveled on dedicated “advance cars” or “bill cars” (rail cars carried on freight trains) and had just one day at any stop to carry out their assignments. Both the team and its ad campaign were simply called “the advance.” “Bill Posters” pasted multi-sheet posters on the outsides of buildings and fences with buckets of flour-and-water paste, long-handled paste brushes, and ladders. “Lithographers” bartered with local merchants, trading passes for the right to place one-sheets, half-sheets, and panels in store windows. The purchased billing stand locations and boards were paid by the use of an “outside bill poster check” to be presented at the ticket wagon on the day of exhibition. The advance team might hire local youths to distribute heralds door-to-door. Beginning in the 1950s, there was a union for bill crews: the International Alliance of Billers, Billposters and Distributors. When a show played towns with a Billposters’ local, union-member crews were required, and the paper would be rubber-stamped with a small “union bug” (union logo) indicating that the posters were put up by union members. This practice was often ignored in towns where there was no Billposters’ local or where there was not a strong pro-union sentiment. (See “Agent” below)
Advise — The official schedule, posted on the outside of the backdoor and elsewhere, listing the current revision of the time and sequence of the acts.
Aerialist — Performer who performs suspended above the ground on a trapeze or similar equipment (wire walking is not an aerialist act).
Agent — The advance team was divided into three phases: the ‘contracting agent’ would get all necessary contracts signed for a show’s upcoming date, the ‘general agent’ would coordinate the show’s annual route (on carnivals these two functions might be combined) and the ‘special agent’ would travel ahead with the advance team to oversee the placement of show advertising and also sell ads in the program to local merchants.
AGVA — The American Guild of Variety Artists, a (currently) 5,000-member union representing performers in the variety entertainment field, including circuses, Las Vegas showrooms and cabarets, musical variety shows, comedy showcases, dance revues, magic shows and amusement park shows, arena and auditorium productions on tour. Referred to in the musical “A Chorus Line” as ‘the nightclub union.’ Organized by vaudevillian Sophie Tucker and others as The American Federation of Actors, absorbed into the AFL-CIO in 1939. Awards the “Georgie Award” (after George Jessel) for variety performer of the year. Opinions vary on the AGVA, generally concluding that it is not even remotely as useful to the performers as the unions covering actors and musicians in legit theater, film, television or concert performance. Did not, until recently, even maintain a minimal web page, but now does have one.
Alfalfa — Paper money.
All Out and Over, All Out, All Over — The entire performance is concluded, the audience has vacated the top and workers can begin re-setting or tearing down.
Annie Oakley — A complimentary ticket or free pass, also ‘ducat.’ The hole customarily punched in such a free pass recalled the bullet holes that Oakley, a wild-west-show sharpshooter, fired into small cards in her performances.
Announcer — The person who announces the acts to the audience during a performance. In modern times, he is usually dressed in red tailcoat and top hat (he is sometimes referred backstage to as “the fancy pants”) and commonly misnamed “ringmaster.” The true and original ring master was the “equestrian director” who stood in the center of the ring and paced the horses for the riding acts, his tailcoat and hat representative of British fox hunting garb.
Arch — The front gate.
Arena — The large cage in which big-cat acts are performed.
Arrow — A paper sign, a large (usually red, on a white card) printed arrow, used to mark the route between towns. Taped to the posts of road signs by the 24-hour man the day before the show moves. Can be placed in any orientation: straight-up arrows every few miles to let you know you’re on the right road, a single tilted arrow to warn of an upcoming turn, and two or three tilted arrows in a group to indicate where to turn.
Artist — Preferred term for a circus performer.
Back Door — Performers’ entrance to the big top.Back Yard — The area behind the big top where props, animals, and performers are readied for a circus performance, and where housing trailers are parked away from public view. The privacy of this area is jealously guarded, for two reasons. First, it can be dangerous, especially for idiots who think it might be cool to sneak into the elephant tent and see them up close. Second, as Bruce Feiler wrote in Under the Big Top, “The only way to survive in the circus was to build a private world of one’s own. Circus people … are like tigers: they have a tendency to devour their own. Those who survive do so by living in a tiny cage and only coming out when they have to perform. … [They mind] only their own business and nobody else’s. … It’s like a day-care center all around this lot. That’s why I just retire to my trailer after the show and pull my curtains down.”
Backyard — Name of a circus trade publication.
Baggage Stock — Horses used for hauling, as opposed to performing horses called “ring stock.”
Bale Ring — There are two types of tents: push pole and bale ring. The holes that poles fit into are grommets, made of rope, covered with canvas. In a push pole tent (generally, the smaller tents) all poles are inserted, under the canvas, into grommets, then the poles (and with them, the canvas) are pushed up by hand. In a bale ring tent the canvas is laid out and the center poles are positioned over the canvas (each through its large grommet) in shallow holes the ground, then raised and guyed off. Then the side poles are raised and guyed off, and the main body of the canvas is attached to a large ring (bale ring) encircling each center pole. These rings are raised up each center pole by block-and-tackle atop the pole, bringing the canvas along with them.
Bally — In addition to its use in the sideshow sense, ‘bally’ might also refer to small prizes placed in boxes of candy as inducements to buy.
Ballyhoo — A spotlight cue meaning to sweep the light across the spectators in a figure-8 pattern (used in a different sense in carnivals and sideshows.)
Barn — Winter quarters.
Basket Animal — A costume made with a basket in the middle, looking as if the performer were riding a horse or other animal. Suspenders hold the costume around the performer’s waist.
Benefit — A contractual arrangement under which the entire profit from one or more entire performances would go to a star performer. The idea was that this part of the performer’s pay would, in fairness, depend on the performer’s drawing power as well as the chance factors that affect the business. Benefits went out of use early in the 20th century.
Bibles — Souvenir programs. Also, boards placed under the reserved seat chairs, so-called because they fold closed like a bible. Amusement Business, the trade magazine, was sometimes also called “the Bible.
“Big Bertha or The Big One — Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Big Cats — Performing lions and tigers.
Big Top — The main tent used for the performance. (A tent is a top plus some walls, so “the big top” would be the largest tent on the lot.)
Bill — An advertising poster.
Blowdown — When the tents are blown down by a storm. A blowdown is a genuine disaster, resulting in severely damaged tents, lost business and even lost lives.
Blow Off — The end of the show when the concessionaires come out. Also, the visual “punchline” of a clown gag.
Blues or Stringers — The general admission seats, usually painted blue (in engineering, “stringers” are long supporting members)
Boiler Room, Phone Room — System of selling advance tickets using teams of telephone salesmen cold-calling people. Such advance sales are indispensable to smaller shows, but the system is open to many abuses. For instance, less-honest phone salesmen might ask you to buy a block of several tickets which (they claim) will be donated to poor deprived orphans through a local charity, which may very well not have been arranged with the charity (which is totally unaware that tickets are waiting at the boxoffice on a certain day).
Bongo Board — Same as a Rola Bola.Boss Canvasman — The man in charge of making sure the canvas goes up properly and doesn’t come down short of a major blow down. Also decides on the placement of tents on the lot, and sometimes functions as lot manager for the sideshow as well. “Tentmaster” is a more common modern term.
Boss Elephant Man — Supervisor of the pachyderms.
Boss Hostler — The man who traveled ahead of the mud shows to mark the way for the caravan; sometimes used to denote the one in charge of all horses in a show.
Brodie — An accidental fall (but one which has an element of stupidity or clumsiness, rather than disaster). From the name of Steve Brodie, who in 1886 claimed to have survived a jump off the Brooklyn Bridge.Bugs — Chameleons or green anole lizards sold as novelties by butchers.
Bullhook or Ankus or Elephant Guide — The dull pointed stick used by elephant trainers to “get the elephant’s attention” and guide the animals to their tasks. The point and the hook-shaped side projection are about the size of, and no more pointed than, a human index finger. (No, it doesn’t hurt them — what kind of idiot would stand practically under a very expensive multi-ton animal and hurt it?) Recently renamed “elephant guide” to re-frame objections to using something called a “hook” on an endangered species.
Bullhand or Bull Handler — Employee working with the elephants.
Bulls — Elephants (whether male or female). Also (mostly with affection) “rubber cows.”
Bull Tub — Heavy round metal pedestal upon which an elephant sits or stands.
“Bump a Nose” — Some people cite this as the “good luck” phrase clowns use to each other before a performance, rather like actors’ “break a leg.” In reality, it’s cutesie-poo amateur clown club jargon. A circus clown would be much more likely to say something like “go @#$%& yourself.”
Bunce — Profits.
Butcher — Strolling vendor selling refreshments or souvenirs. Al Stencell said, on the Circus Historical Society forum in 2006, “The food items were sent into the big top in an order. That is dry first. Once people were ready to almost kill you for a drink – then the wet went in. Candy apples didn’t go in until the last couple of acts. Reason – it takes too long to eat an apple.”
Calliope — A musical instrument consisting of a series of steam whistles played like an organ. (From ‘Calliope,’ the Greek muse of music.) Cake — Money made by short-changing customers at ticket boxes.Caring Clown — Not a traditional circus term. Used by amateurs (and Ringling publicity) to refer to clowns who specialize in hospital visits (“Awwwwww…”).
Carpet Clown — A clown who works either among the audience or on arena floor.
Catcher — The member of a trapeze act who catches the flyer after he has released himself from the bar in a flying return act.
Cats — Lions, tigers, leopards, panthers.Cattle Guard — A set of low seats placed in front of the general admission seats to accommodate overflow audiences.
Center Pole or King Pole — The first pole of the tent to be raised. It is about 60 feet high and holds the peak of the tent.
Character Clown — A clown who dresses in a character costume, often a tramp, but sometimes a policeman, fireman, etc.
Charivari — A noisy whirlwind entrance of clowns; also called (probably through an uneducated attempt to read this unfamiliar word) ‘shivaree.’
Charley (v.) — To ditch a poster or group of posters or handbills instead of posting or distributing them as assigned.
Cherry Pie — Extra jobs done by circus personnel for extra pay.
Chinese — Extra jobs done by circus personnel without additional pay. Circus contracts often call for employees, in addition to the job they signed on for, to make themselves “generally useful,” the meaning of which is often stretched to include all sorts of labor at all hours, until employees often feel that they are being abused by management as badly as Chinese laborers were while building the railroads.
Circus Candy — Very cheap confections with deceptively impressive packaging. Often sold in a special intermission pitch, with prize premiums as an incentive to buy.
Circus Fans Association of America — Fan organization established in 1926. Its local clubs are called “tents” and “tops.” Publishes “The White Tops” members’ magazine. The loyalty of the Fans is sincerely appreciated by circus performers and is seen as indispensable to the survival of small shows. Many a mud-show performer has gotten a ride to the laundromat from a Fan. However, they can at times (like fans in any field) be both obsessive and intrusive, feeling entitled to enter the performers’ private areas uninvited or meddle with the animals entirely unappreciative of the danger. Their mottoes: “We fight anything that fights the circus” and “We pay as we go” (meaning, I believe, that they don’t expect freebies for their helpful efforts). Circus owners understand both sides: a post to the Fans’ website recently read, in part, “That smiling neighbor tearing tickets might be the contact for next years booking. That guest clown (who doesn’t look like a Halloweener and will take directions) can add some visual beef to tired routines.” Another member also wrote “I put my foot down and separated the fans from the freeloaders. The freeloaders show up with a car full of uncontrollable kids, sneak in the back door, sit in the best seats, let their kids run all over the place, then after the show head back to the car to have lunch they brought from home and complain about our soda prices.” Here’s their website.
Circus Headache — A real ailment, named because prolonged exposure to the ammonia fumes generated by animal waste can cause splitting headaches.
Circus Pole — Very early mass-produced candy hawked by candy butchers inside the tent. Stick candy, with a hard, brown, brittle outer layer and a soft coconut center.
Circus Report — Name of a weekly circus trade magazine.
Circus Tape — Adhesive cloth tape used to wrap trapeze bars and other circus equipment.
Cirky — Circus counterpart to the word “carny;” a circus employee.
Clem — A fight.
Cloud Swing — A bar-less swing, really just a “u” of rope, used in an aerial act. Most performers using the cloud swing never used safety features.
Clown Alley — The clowns’ dressing and prop area.
Clown Stop — A short clown gag (as opposed to a lengthy routine).
Come In — The period an hour before showtime when the public is entering the arena before the circus begins. Elephant and camel rides are offered for a fee during come in; butchers are selling their wares, and clowns are on the floor. Some clowns specialized and only performed during come in.
Concert or Aftershow — An extra act, performed in the big top, for an additional admission fee, after the conclusion of the main performance. The concert was often produced by a separate company independently of the circus, paying a fee for the use of the big top and for ticket sales. Early shows offered musical concerts, but the concert came to be almost always a wild west show, often featuring a famous cowboy movie star.
Cookhouse, Cook Shack — The place where personnel eat, not open to the public.
Cyr Wheel — A device for performing wheel gymnastics (q.v.), the cyr wheel is a single hoop the artist can perform in, using his weight to throw the wheel into several types of spin. See also “German Wheel”
Day and Date — When two circuses are in the same town simultaneously.
Dog and Pony Show — A dismissive term for a very small circus. A large traveling circus might have 20 people working, a small “mud show” might be a family and a helper or two. They were often too small to support large animals, and their animal acts might amount to as little as a trained dog and pony. In common use, this is a metaphor for an event with big ballyhoo but little substance, a self-important but empty and insincere display: “Congressman Blowhard demanded a hearing on the dangers of carnival rides, so we had to testify in his dog and pony show.”
Doing a Buffalo Bill – A fake farewell tour or fake curtain call. Often draws great crowds to bid the old star a fond farewell.
Donkey Kick — The bareback rider’s flip from a standing position to the hands.
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”.
Doors — Call meaning the house is open to the public.
Downtown Wagon — A circus wagon featuring a simple exhibit, parked prominently on a downtown street as advertising on circus day. Sometimes a ticket wagon would be located downtown to increase sales.
Dressage — An act by horses trained in dancelike stylized movements; the animals’ paces are guided by subtle movements of the rider’s body.
Dressing the House — To sell reserved-seat tickets in a pattern so that all sections appear at least moderately filled, with no obviously empty areas.
Ducat (somestimes ‘ducket’) — Free ticket to the show, also knows as an ‘Annie Oakley’ (or ‘comp,’ a term shared with theater). Sometimes also used to refer to money.
Ducat Grabber — Door tender or ticket collector.
Dukie (or Dukey) Bag — Bag lunch provided for workers on the jump.
Dukie (or Dukey) Lunch — The first circus cookhouse was jocularly nicknamed “The Hotel du Quai,” after an elegant Parisian hotel across the street from the Louvre. When read by uneducated people it came out “Dukie” and the name stuck.
Dukie (or Dukey) Tickets — Company scrip or vouchers distributed by management to staff and performers to use like money at the pie car and cook house. Giving these coupons instead of cash ensured that the workers ate and had personal things despite the temptation to blow it all on alcohol. You could buy food but not beer with the dukey tickets.
Dukie (or Dukey) Run — Any circus run longer than an overnight haul.
(the) Educator — Slang for Amusement Business, a weekly publication for the outdoor entertainment industry.
Equestrian Director — The “stage manager” of the show, in formal riding wear (top hat, red jacket, etc.) who decided and signaled the pacing of the acts. His costume, functions and whistle were later adopted by the announcer.
Exotic Animal Act — An animal act involving mixed species. Fink — Anything broken. Also ‘larry.
‘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 circus life.
Flag, or Flag’s Up — The cookhouse is open.
Flare — A kerosene torch placed along the route from the railroad loading spur to the circus lot, to light the way during a night haul.
Flip-Flaps — Backward handsprings done on the ground.
Flukum — Refreshment butchers’ term for no-brand grape or orange drink to be sold in the stands (usually from cheap powdered flavorings).
Fly Bar — Aerialists’ swing with a bar instead of a flat seat.
Flyers — Aerialists in flying acts, which involve jumping through the air. The flyer’s partner is the ‘catcher.’
Flying Squadron — The first trucks to reach the lot. (After the title of a novel about the War of 1812.)
Forty Milers — Newcomers to circus or carnival life, who (metaphorically speaking) have never been farther than 40 miles away from their home, and might very well quit before they get any farther away than that.
Funambulist — Rope walker, from the Latin: “funis” (rope) and “ambulare” (to walk.)
Funny Ropes — Extra guy ropes added to regular ones, usually at angles, to give extra stability and spread to canvas tent.
Fussner Act — Usually an outdoor act for fairground or circus lot in which an artist balances on a rolling globe about 3 feet in diameter, rolling it up a slight incline to the top of a downward spiraling track on which he rolls on the globe to the ground. An older act, revived in the 1930s by a performer named The Great Fussner.
G-Top — A private club, generally under a tent, where staff drink or gamble.
Gaffer — Circus manager.
Gag — A short clown trick, too brief to be an act.
Gallery — General seating area (the cheap seats), consisting of backless bleachers in the old days.
Gandy Dancers — Originally referred to a railroad crew pounding spikes in a coordinated pattern of motions, each of several men striking the stake head with sledgehammers in sequence. The raising of the circus big top also requires the driving of many spikes, and (until the invention of mechanical stake drivers) the job was pretty much the same, so the term followed the work.
Garbage Joint — The souvenir or novelty stand.
Gaucho — Someone working in the circus who was not born into circus life. Probably a corruption of the gypsy word “gadjo” (sometimes “gadje”), meaning a non-Gypsy.
German Wheel — Invented in Germany in 1925 as a gymnastic prop, the “german wheel” is a pair of 8-foot aluminum hoops joined by 8 struts. The gymnast can grip the struts in various ways, using his weight to throw the wheel into several types of spin. Also called the “gym wheel.” The lesser-known “cyr wheel” is a single hoop used the same way.
Geronimo — A “death dive” act, jumping from a great height onto a big air bag (as movie stunt men do today) or a “sponge plunge” into an impossibly small amount of water.
Gilly — Anyone not connected with the circus, an outsider or towner.
Gilly Outfit, Gilly Show — Small circus, usually on the rural circuit,transported by two cars on a commercial train. A show booking as little as 25 passenger tickets could get a free baggage car from the railroad line. These shows could sometimes rent a lot near the railyard from the rail line. They would hire local help to transport the show from railyard to lot, or use their own skeletal “gilly wagon” which could be adapted to carry their cargo to the lot.
Gilly Wagon — Small utility wagon or cart.
Giraffe — A unicycle with seat and pedals atop a long pole, putting the rider high above the ground.
Graft — A piece of work, whether easy or hard.
Grafters — Gamblers who often trail a show.
Grand Entry — Old term for the opening parade around the inside of the big top, more often called the “spec” (for “spectacle”) or “the Production Number”.
Grandstand — The seating area facing the center ring of a three-ring circus, flanked by the less favorable viewing area called the “stalls.”
Grease Joint — The hot-dog or grill concession trailer.
Grouch Bag — A small bag or purse worn under the clothing, carrying the performer’s valuables (which are likely to be stolen from an unattended dressing room).
(to) Guy Out — To check and tension the guy wires.
Guy Wires — Stabilizing ropes that give horizontal support to rigging. Most things in the air use guy wires: flying acts, cloud swing, high wire, single traps, double traps, cradle, pretty much anything with a crane bar uses them.
Hair Hang — An aerial act in which the performer was suspended by her hair. More of an act was possible by this method than by the “iron jaw” method, because you can hang longer by your hair than by your teeth.
Hammock Act — Act in which an aerialist is suspended by being entwined in one or two long cloths, alternately sliding down them, swinging from them, and wrapping them around the body suspended by friction. Applies particularly when there is no rope or loop hidden in the length of the cloths. Similar to the “strap act.”
Harmonica — Considered a bad-luck instrument.
Haul Route — Directions from the rail yard to the lot or arena.
Heat Merchant — An unscrupulous advance-sale phoneroom ticket sale agent.
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! — Traditional battle cry of circus people in fights with townspeople. These days, more likely to be ‘It’s a clem!’ or just ‘fight!’.
High School Horse — A horse who has been taught fancy steps involving leaps and other elevated movements. Derives from the classical riding academy term haute école, French for “high school”, referring to the high leaps and poses performed by the horses of such institutions as the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.
High Wire — A tightly-stretched wire far above the floor, on which a wire walker performs.
Hippodrome Track — The oval area between the rings and audience.
Hits — Good places to paste posters, like the walls of grain elevators, barns, buildings, or fences.
Home Run — The trip from Home Sweet Home back to winter quarters.
Home Sweet Home — The last stand of the season, when bill posters sometimes pasted one pack of posters upside down.
Horse Feed — Poor returns from poor business.
Horse Opry — Any circus (jokingly).
House — Theatre term for the audience seating area. As in ‘a full house.’
Howdah — From the Indian term, a seat on the back of an elephant or camel. Elephant and camel rides would be sold for an extra fee during “come in.”
Icarian Act — See ‘Risley Act’.
Iron-Jaw Trick — An aerial stunt using a metal bit and apparatus which fits into the performer’s mouth, and from which he hangs suspended.
Jackpots — Tall tales about one’s exploits on the circus (‘war stories’.)
Joey — A clown (derived from Joseph Grimaldi, a famous clown in 18th-century England.) An amateur term not actually used on the lot.
John Robinson — A signal to cut or shorten an act, or to give a very short show altogether. If you were headed out to the ring, someone would say “John Robinson” to call for an abbreviated performance, or in the middle of an act if the ringmaster made the announcement “Would John Robinson please come to the rear entrance,” the performer should go right into his last trick. Rarely used, but valuable in case of emergency, storm warning, or sometimes just a very long haul to the next lot.
Jumbo — The popular use of the word “jumbo” to mean anything large comes from the name of a famous large elephant first exhibited in London, then sold to P.T. Barnum in 1882. London zookeepers named the elephant, probably drawing on “jambo,” the traditional Swahili word of greeting. The elephant’s popularity drove the word “jumbo” into general use. After Jumbo’s death, Barnum stuffed him and continued to exhibit him, then donated him to Tufts University. Although the remains of Jumbo were destroyed in a fire, Jumbo is still the official Tufts mascot.
Jump — The distance between performances in different towns.
Jump Stand — An additional ticket booth near the front door used to sell extra tickets during a rush by spectators.
Kick Out — A date or ticket-selling campaign that falls through.
Kicking Sawdust — Following the circus or being a part of it. Also ‘on the sawdust trail.’
Kid Pusher — Employee, usually on a mud show, assigned to the job of recruiting and directing local youths in setting up the tops in return for free passes.
Kid Show — A sideshow.
Kiester — A wardrobe trunk, or a pitchman’s display case. Or anyone’s rear end, or jail. Such as “he had a beef with the fuzz and landed in the kiester.”.
King Pole — The main support pole or mast for the tent, sometimes one, two or four in number. A king pole sticks out through a hole in the canvas and the canvas is pulled up around it with ropes. Very old canvas tents were rather fragile and had one king pole in the center with four or even eight queen poles around it. Queen poles also passed through holes and had pull up ropes, but were around the edges of the tent. Quarter poles were between the walls at the same distance from the king pole as the queen poles.
Kinker — Any circus performer (originally specific to acrobats).
Knockabout Act — Comedy act involving physical humor and exaggerated mock violence.
L.Q. — Living Quarters whether it is a show-owned bunk house, a railroad sleeping car, a crude rack in an 18-wheeler, or a private trailer.
Lacing — The system of eyelets and rope loops that holds together the panels of a tent’s walls.
Larry — “Something’s wrong with it.” Might describe damaged merchandise, or something worn out beyond any usefulness, or even a person who’s a loser (however affable.)
Layout Man, Lot Man — The lot superintendent who decides the location of the various tents.
Lead Stock — Any trained haltered animal (other than horses) in the circus.
Liberty Act — Liberty horses are trained horses performing without riders or tethers, controlled only by commands from the trainer.
Lift — The natural bounce with which a bareback rider jumps from the ground to the back of a running horse.
Long Haul Town — A spot where the lot was a long way from the railroad loading spur.
Long Mount — When several elephants stand in line, each on hind legs, placing his front legs on the back of the elephant in front of him.
Lot — The show grounds.
Lot Lice — Local townspeople who arrive early to watch the unloading of the circus and stay late. Maybe they leave money behind, but they sure get in the way.
Lunge Line — A long tether allowing horses to run and do stunts around the periphery of the ring while the trainer stands in the center holding the line. In horse training, in or out of the circus, to “lunge” is to control a horse in this way.
Main Guy — Guy rope to hold up the center pole in the Big Top.
The March — The street parade.
Marquee — The small entrance tent on most tented circuses.
Mechanic — Safety harness used in practice sessions by flyers, trampoline, bareback riders, high wire, perch acts, and tumblers. The practicing performer wears a harness attached to a rope that hangs above the middle of the ring. Called a ‘lunge’ when the rope is fixed to the center of the ring and keeps the performer from falling outward.
Midway — In its broadest sense, the area where all the concessions, rides and shows are located in a circus. Of course, a carnival is basically nothing but a midway without a circus, but in a circus the midway is situated “midway” between the ‘front door’ to the circus lot and the ‘big top’ where the circus performers do their acts. At a fair, the midway will probably be a combination of the carnival and the ‘independent midway,’ amusements booked in separately by the fair committee itself.
Mud Shoe — Metal fitting that helps slide center poles up when raising the big top.
Mud Show — A smaller tent circus playing rural areas.
Mule — A rubber-tired tractor used to move wagons.
Night Riders — Bill posters for competing circuses, who posted paper for their employers in a gentlemanly fashion by day, and tore down or covered up the bills for their competition by night.
Novelties — Toys, canes, balloons and other wares sold on the lot or by butchers in the stands.
On the Show — Describes performers and all others connected to the circus. The term “with it” is specific to the carnival world, not the circus.
Opposition Paper — Advertising posters put up by competing circuses.
Pad Room — Room near the animals for pads, harness and tack for elephants and horses. Not really a dressing room, though most of the animal people hang there and might put their spec wardrobe there.
Paid Off in the Dark — When salary is paid in cash, “off the books.”
Paper — Posters, handbills or advertisements for a carnival. Paper used to be mostly in the form of posters of various sizes pasted on walls, or handbills distributed door-to-door. Now, with laws against posting on the public right-of-way, and with flier distribution often considered “littering,” paper mostly consists of two-for-one coupons distributed in stores as a favor to local charities. Since local charities often ‘sponsor’ the circus or carnival, posters put up by the charity are often officially overlooked by law enforcement.
Papering the House — Giving away free tickets to fill up the audience, to give the impression that the public is anxious to see your show. Often done when the press is in attendance. (Also used in the theater.)
Pedestal — The platform that fliers perch on while waiting to catch the swing (the “fly bar”).
Perch Act — A balancing act involving use of apparatus upon which one person performs while being balanced by another.
Performance Director — The person in charge of the overall look of the show and all artists, very much like a theatrical director.
Performer’s Trick — Something the performer does with great pride but which only other performers would appreciate, like a magician who learns sleights so skillful they awe other magicians but seem to the public no different than what their Uncle Bill can do.
Picture Gallery — A tattooed man.
Pie-Car — The railroad dining car. After the shows stopped traveling by rail, someone opened a pie car on every show; it opened after the cookhouse closed. It was probably the first convenience store — you could buy beer, cigarettes, sodas, chips, sandwiches but not full meals, and stuff like socks, razors, cards. If it was a little show you would get soda, coffee, tube steak (a hot dog) and that’s about it.
Pie Car Jr. — On the modern Ringling show, a trailer or wagon that provides meals on the back lot of the arena. What movie companies call “craft services” and rock concerts call “catering.”
Pitchmen — Generally, a person making a pitch (sales talk) to sell something, often on the city streets, or in a carnival show or on the midway, but likely over the loudspeaker during a break in the show. Balloons, peanuts, souvenirs, toys, and more might be pitched. “While we are setting up for the next act, for the next two minutes Bob our balloon man will be selling balloons right down here in center ring for only a dollar. This will be the only time that this offer will be good! On the bottom of some of the balloons you will find a gold dot. When you find that gold dot, make sure you take that right out to our toy store and get your free prize. So hurry down and see Bob; you have only one minute left!” The people who sold the stuff would tip the pitch man, because the better the pitch the more you sold.
Pole Direction — The direction the wagons face on the railroad cars. For efficient unloading, they all need to be positioned uniformly.
Possum Belly — Storage box built into the underside of a work wagon to carry cable, stakes, rigging, etc. At times a place for a quick nap by a worker, or the temporary home of an unauthorized “traveling girlfriend” (a “possum belly queen”). Why do these girls leave the crowd of locals in their hometowns? For the most part, the key word is “leave.” A few nights of sex with a carny (who’s probably no worse than the local high-school dropouts who’ve been trying to get her) might be her ticket out of wherever she grew up.
Privilege — The fee paid to the circus for the right to place a concession on the midway. Early day circus owners sold privileges for almost everything on the lot except the performance itself. (And, they did sell the concert or aftershow as a privilege). Side shows, concert, concessions, pie car (both food and games), games, ticket sales, or any other project that could extract more money from the pockets of the townspeople was sold by owners to the individuals who worked that racket. When early shows quit putting up their employees at local hotels, they sold the ‘hotel’ privilege to individuals to operate. Show owners allowed them a flat amount per person per day for feeding the help. Some old timers used to claim that they ate better under this system than they did after shows took over operation of their cook houses.
Prop Hand — Crew member responsible for setting and placing props for the next act.
Quarter Poles — Poles which help support the weight of the canvas and take up the slack between center and side poles. A quarter pole does not pass through the canvas but usually has a mushroom shaped cap with two small holes. Ropes are sewn to the canvas each side of a leather pad and they pass throgh the holes to pull up the pole and secure it.
(the) Rag — The immense spread of canvas that is the big top.
(to) Rag Out — To tighten the tent ropes.
Rag Tag, Rag Bag, Stick & Rag Show — A small circus, never elegant to begin with, ill-kept and barely presentable from day to day.
Rat Sheets — Advance posters or handbills with negative claims about the opposition.
Razorbacks — The men who load and unload railroad cars.
Red Lighted — A method of getting rid of you: the owner departs without paying while you’re not looking (all you see when trying to pick up your check is red lights disappearing down the road); or tells you to meet the circus somewhere, but the circus goes somewhere else; some sources even use this word to mean that an unpopular person is thrown from the back of a moving vehicle. Also “Oil Spotted,” the moment when there’s just you and the oily stains where the bus used to be.
Red Wagon — The main office wagon.
Reserved Seat Squeeze — Many circuses sold “reserved seats” from booths past which the entering crowd would have to squeeze. The implication was that for an extra fee, you would be able to sit in the seats closest to the ring, while everyone else would have seats much farther away from the action. A few minutes into the show, any remaining reserved seats would be offered again to the crowd in case general-admission ticketholders developed an urge to sit closer.
Rigger — Worker specializing in assembling and managing the rigging.
Rigging — The apparatus used in high wire or aerial acts.
Ring — The circle in which circus acts are presented. Center ring was about 42 feet, it was also bigger and heavier made because that is where most of the animal acts worked. It was made strong enough that the horses could walk on it. The side or end rings were about 36 feet and not made as heavy.
Ring Banks or Curbs — The wooden curbing around the ring.
Ring Barn — A permanent, roofed regulation-sized circus ring for rehearsal at winter quarters.
Ring Doors — The canvas panels artists push aside as they enter the performance area of the big top. Behind the ring doors is a small vestibule artists can stand in inside the “back door” but out of sight of the audience.
Ring Horse — A horse which performs in the center ring, trained to maintain timing despite distractions.
Ring Stock — Animals which perform in the show, like horses, llamas and camels.
Ringmaster — The show’s Master of Ceremonies and main announcer. Originally, he stood in the center of the ring and paced the horses for the riding acts, keeping the horses running smoothly while performers did their tricks on the horses’ backs.
Risley Act — Acrobatic act in which one or more performers support another performer on their feet. Called “Icarian Games” by European circuses. When the manipulators support props instead of people, the act is called “foot juggling.”
Rola Bola — A board placed flat on top of a cylindrical roller. A performer stands on the board and balances while performing various feats.
Roll-Ups — Tame American aerial planges.
Roman Riding — A rider standing with one foot on the back of each of two horses.
Roper — A cowboy.
Rosin — Powdered dried plant gum used to prevent slipping.
Rosinback — Horse used for bareback riding. Horses’ backs were sprinkled with rosin to prevent the rider from slipping.
Roustabout — A circus workman, laborer.
Route — The annual itinerary, the schedule of towns to be played.
Route Book — Like the “captain’s log” of a ship, the route book contains notes about each stand: where, when, conditions, attendance, anything noteworthy about the performance or anything else that happened.
Route Card — A bare-bones schedule published for wide distribution, listing the season’s stands by date. Circus route cards are valuable information for performers and valuable souvenirs for collectors.
Rubbermen — Strolling balloon vendors. Balloons were blown up with air and attached to sticks, since helium-filled balloons are expensive and unsold ones don’t last long.
Runs — Ramps to load and unload wagons at the railroad cars.
Safety Loop — The loop part of a web rope into which a performer places her wrist in aerial ballet numbers.
School Show — A show promoted for classroom field trips to the circus. Certainly qualifies as a valid educational experience because of the iconic place the circus holds in American culture.
Screamers — Standard circus march tunes, so called because they are usually played with great vigor.
(to) See the Elephant — The circus origin of this phrase is obvious. It passed into general popular usage about 1835 meaning “to have seen everything there is to see in the world,” and shortly thereafter it took on the added meaning “to lose your innocence and learn a humbling or embarrassing lesson.” Among the military it has come to mean “to experience combat for the first time.” Even Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings makes a sly reference to it, as Sam Gamgee, out in the wide world among amazing things, remarks on finally having “seen an oliphaunt.”
Seventeen Wagon — The wagon where paychecks are distributed.
Shanty or Chandelier — The man who works the lights.
Showman’s Rest — Several sites share this name. A section of Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Hugo, Oklahoma, is the final resting place of many circus and carnival veterans. There is a similar section of the Woodlawn Cemetery in Chicago, overseen by the Showmen’s League of America, created when 86 performers and workers of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus were killed in a 1918 train wreck. 56 of the victims are buried there. Many of them remained unidentified because they were known only by their “handles.”
Showmen’s League of America — Founded in 1913 by a group of outdoor showmen meeting at the Saratoga Hotel in Chicago, the League promotes the image of the circus and carnival and performs charitable work. Buffalo Bill Cody was the club’s first president. Here’s a link to their website.
Side Poles — Short poles at the outer edge of the top canvas.Sidewall — The canvas wall that hangs below a canvas ‘top,’ as in ‘big top.’ What most outside the business would call a ‘tent’ is the canvas top with its sidewalls attached. Compare British term ‘lacings.’ Used as a verb, to sidewall is to sneak in without paying by crawling under the sidewall.
Sixteen Wagon — The show office wagon.
Sky Boards — The decorative boards, sometimes detachable, around the tops of wagons used in parades.
Slack Wire — A wirewalker’s wire that is set up slightly slack, creating a much less firm footing than a tight wire.
Slanger — Trainer of cats. Compare British usage.
Sledge Gang — Crew of men who pounded in tent stakes.
Slide For Life — Usually performed by a woman, who would climb to the top of the building, hook a hand loop or a foot loop to a cable connected to the top beam and the floor, and slide down the cable. An acrobat named Herbie Webber would do such a slide standing on the cable, even sliding down backwards, adding a fake fall during his wire act; later, taking a fake fall became known as “Taking a Herbie.”
Slop Shoes — Wooden clogs with leather uppers, easy to slip on and off hands-free. Worn by performers over their performing footwear, to keep costumes clean while walking to and from the big top.
Snubber — A pulley and cable on the side of a railroad flatcar, used to slow a wagon coming down the runs (ramps) to the ground.
Soft Lot — A wet or muddy lot.
Spanish Web — A long fabric-covered rope suspended vertically from far above, which may be used to climb to an aerialist’s apparatus, or on which an aerialist might perform.
Spec — Short for “spectacle”, also called the “grand entry” or “production number”. A flashy parade around the inside of the big top. It is generally presented first, or just before intermission. Appearing in the spec would be all the artists in full regalia, plus fancy wagons and displays and even giant character costumes.
Spec Girls — Showgirls who appear in the spec.
Splash Boards — Decorated boards, sometimes detachable, around the bottom edge of wagons used in parades.
Spool Truck, Spool Wagon — Truck which carries the tent canvas.
Spreading the Rag — Laying out the canvas of the big top preparatory to raising it.
Stake Bites — The ankle wounds inflicted by the heads of metal stakes that you walk into while crossing the lot in the dark. The worst ones are inflicted by stakes with the heads split and cracked and flattened to razor-sharpness by mallets.
Stalls — The medium cost seats in the auditorium. A less-favorable viewing position to the left and the right of the grandstand.
Stand — Any town where the circus plays, as in ‘one-night stand.’ Didn’t know you were using show talk whilst discussing last night’s date, did you?
Star Backs — More expensive seats (usually indicated by painted stars on the seat backs).
“Stars and Stripes Forever” — Also known as “the disaster march”, the band reserved this Sousa march as a signal that an emergency had come up, calling for the clowns to come running out, directing public attention away from the emergency, or for the audience to be evacuated.
St. Louis — Doubles or seconds of food, named because the St. Louis engagement was played in two sections.
Strap Act — A variation of the “Spanish Web” popularized in Cirque du Soleil, the strap act features acrobatics performed with the use of “aerial straps,” long straps hanging from the top of the tent, reaching almost to the floor. The act often includes dance moves on the floor away from the straps, as well as having the straps pulled partway up and let down during the act.
Straw House — A sold-out house. Straw was spread on ground forspectators to sit on in front of the general admission seats.
Stringers or Blues — The general-admission seats.
Style — To strike a pose that invites applause. At the end of a circus act, the artist may very well be in a position (like standing on a tiny platform grasping a wire) that does not lend itself to bowing, and when surrounded by the audience if you bow you’ll be showing your rear end to a large part of the crowd. So you “style and smile”.
Sucker Netting — Rough fencing, akin to the cheap, light orange plastic fencing used today on construction sites. The fencing kept the crowd inside the midway and out of the backyard.
Suitcase Act — A performer who has no costumes or equipment of his own (and so shows up with just a suitcase).
Swag — Midway game prizes, or souvenirs and toys bought from vendors.
Sway Pole — An act in which the performer perches atop an extremely tall pole, then sways and rocks the pole giddily from side to side. Often played for laughs, it is very dangerous to perform.
Synopsis Sheets — The advance men supplied the office with a summary of each town’s important data: the names of their contacts (officials, feed suppliers, sponsors), any special requirements or potential problems.
Tableau Wagons — Ornamental parade wagons on which colorfully-dressed performers ride.
Tack Spitter — Banner man or bill poster.
Tail Up — Command to an elephant to follow in line.
Tanbark — Shredded tree bark, more durable and manageable than sawdust, used to cover the greater circus arena ground.
Taps — List of the businesses that have bought groups of tickets previously (perhaps you can ‘tap’ them again this year.)
Teeterboard — A board like a playground teeter-totter, usually about six feet long, used in an acrobatic act. The performer stands on the lowered end of the board and his partners jump onto the upper end, vaulting him into the air.
Tentmaster — Modern term for the “Boss Canvasman”.
Title — The name under which a circus presents itself, regardless of the name of the actual owner of the show. For instance, there are no more Ringlings, Barnums or Baileys in Kenneth Feld’s operation.
Toby News — Circus-lot gossip, from the european/gypsy “tober” (campsite).
Top — Tent (technically refers only to the overhead canopy, the sidewalls being a separate item.) For example, dressing tops are where the performers dress for show.
Train Master — Employee responsible for every aspect of the train, whether moving or at rest.
Trouper — A person who has spent at least one full season with the circus, and whose response to the demands of life and work on the road are those of a seasoned veteran. Also used in vaudeville (and in theatre in general) to mean a veteran performer.
Trunk Up — Command to an elephant to raise his trunk in a salute.
Turn — Any act in the show; you “do your turn.
“Turnaway — A sold-out show.
Twenty-four-hour Man — See “24-Hour Man”
Wait Brothers Show — Ringling Bros.and Barnum & Bailey Show. So called because the posters read, “Wait for the Big Show.”
Wallace Trick – A “strong” act in which animals fake an attack upon their trainer, driving him to the safety door.
Walls or Sidewalls — Canvas side walls of a tent, as distinguished from the roof or ‘top.’
Walkaround — A clown feature in which clowns stroll through the crowd and perform comic bits interacting with audience members.
Water Wagon — The water wagon circulated around the lot dispensing water for numerous uses: filling water buckets for performers to wash in, watering the animals, spraying the ground to keep the dust down, filling the drinking-water barrels placed around the lot (they had blocks of ice in them and a tin cup on a chain), and hosing down the elephants.
Web — Dangling canvas-covered rope suspended from swivels from the top of the tent.
Web Girl — Woman who performs on the “Spanish Web.”
Web Sitter — Ground man who holds or controls the web for aerialists.
Western Arts — Performing skills suitable for wild-west shows: trick rope spinning, knife throwing, whip tricks, tomahawk/hatchet throwing, sharp shooting, pistol quick draw and spinning, etc.
Wheel Gymnastics — Performances using either the double-rimmed German Wheel or the single Cyr Wheel, in which the gymnast grips the struts in various ways, using his weight to throw the wheel into several types of spin.
(to) Wildcat — To change the announced route on short notice due to problems on the planned route, abandoning the benefit of already-placed advance advertising and possibly conflicting with the usual territories played by competing shows. Major droughts or layoffs might mean that nobody would have the price of a ticket, or a veterinary epidemic might make it inadvisable to take valuable livestock into an area.
Windjammer — A member of a circus band.
Windy Van Hooten’s — Name of the mythical “perfect circus” imagined by performers and crew, where everything is wonderful and everyone gets the pay, respect and working conditions they deserve, plus some.
Winter Quarters — Location where a show stays during its off season.
Wood — Phony ticket sales slips submitted by boiler-room agents to inflate their commissions just before they leave.
Worker: The big rubber balloon, animal or airship the concession man holds high in the air as he sells the item. Already packaged in an envelope, the uninflated balloon is always sold as the patron leaves the circus or fair grounds. In untrained hands, the balloon will often break before it can be inflated to more than half the size of the ‘worker’.
Zanies or Zanni — Clowns.
British Circus Slang
Many of these terms derive from a traveling showmen’s slang called parlari or parlyari. Parlari flows from many lands and seems to derive largely from Lingua Franca, a “pidgin” (a simplified informal spoken trade language, an admixture of other languages used between speakers of different tongues) used around the Mediterranean between sailors and traders from widely different language groups, the several parents of this language being Italian, French, Spanish, Occitan, Arabic, Greek and Turkish. Lingua Franca was used from the Middle Ages until the nineteenth century, when it disappeared from use leaving only this vestigial trace. Parlari, as it survives, partakes of numerous sources including Lingua Franca, Romani (the language of the Gypsies), “Shelta” or “Gammon” (the cant of the Irish tinkers), bits of Yiddish, Cockney rhyming slang and the less well-known Cockney backslang.It survived among several populations that share certain characteristics: they are (for the most part) traditionally itinerant, lower-class, and share a need for a private vocabulary unintelligible to outsiders. Many members of each population would deny fellowship with the other groups who use it (each with its own variations), but there is undeniable overlap between the “parlari” of the theatre, the circus and fairground, and polari, British gay slang from the days when ‘the love that dares not speak its name’ needed a secret jargon. Many words are still used by British merchant seamen. Scholars (of course) differ about all these issues.
Brian Steptoe, a British authority, has pointed out, “In my experience, travelling fairground operators, owners and their staffs would be greatly insulted if they were thought to be gypsies. Many of the terms you list are gypsy or Romany terms and I do not think they should be called travelling showmen’s language, although some showmen’s words are in your list.” Peter Bendall, another Briton, offers: “When I was a child and a young adult, nearly all of our British circuses used the private language which we called Parlari. One of its primary uses was to talk among ourselves when the customers weren’t to understand! … I have given the meanings as we knew and used them.
One additional note: British fans of anything are (to over-generalize a little) keenly devoted to their areas of special interest, educated beyond the ken of the typical American fan, and doggedly devoted to detail. You can’t put a period drama on the BBC without getting bags of letters from fans complaining that the actress playing the baroness wore a piece of jewelry that couldn’t have been made until 10 years after the period the play was set in. Have your characters swordfight and you’ll hear about your errors from a country vicar who self-published a book about the swords used in the late 16th century. British fairground fans are particularly fond of the steam traction engines that powered early fairground rides and carried fairs from town to town. They also know every ride manufacturer, all the models made and every variation thereof. Additionally, fairground living vans get the full and detailed attention of other fans. Traveling showmen have a particular bond in Britain, forged by the need to oppose George Smith’s attempts between 1884 and 1891 to legislate the movements of all traveling people with the Moveable Dwellings Bill. The show community formed the United Kingdom Van Dwellers Association in 1889, and have maintained a strong advocacy of their lifestyle ever since, sharing the effort with gypsies (due less to fondness, as evidenced by the comments at the top of the page, than to the strong similarities in the needs and concerns of traveling people.) For a full treatment of all these issues visit the National Fairground Archive at http://www.nfa.dept.shef.ac.uk/history/index.html
American Riding Machine — Practice equipment also called a ‘mechanic.’ The practicing performer wears a harness attached to a rope that hangs above the middle of the ring. It is used to prevent riders from injuring themselves when learning to do trick riding. When the public are allowed to try it, it is called by its long name.
Animateur — The straight man who works with a clown in a speaking gag.
Atching — To camp, or to move to the next lot.
Attraction — A star act that can occupy a significant portion (or the entirety) of the second act.
Barney — A fight or argument.
Batts — Shoes.
Beast Wagon — A trailer fitted up with cages to carry the circus animals.
Belly Box — A cupboard fixed underneath a wagon, between the wheels, where you can store things.
Bevvy — Beer, or by extension a pub or bar.
Bill — A poster.
Bona — Good, or sometimes ‘please’.
Buffer — A performing dog.
Buildup — Putting up the tent.
Candy Floss — Cotton candy.
Caravan — A trailer (in common use).
Chapiteau — The big top.
Chava — A girl (or in very vulgar use, to have sexual intercourse.)
Chavi or Chafe — A child.
Chovey — An (old) clothes shop, good for clown outfits or cheap wear.
Continental Seating — Seating that has specially shaped frames so that there are alternately high and low boards as seat and footboard.
Daybill — Usually a poster which shows the acts in detail, but properly any poster which is put up on the day of the show.
Dik or Deko — To look at.
Dinari or Dollnaries — Money.
Dobby or Dobby Set — A merry-go-round (q.v.) on which the seats are fixed to the ride’s rotating platform. When most seats move with an up-and-down motion the ride is a “galloper.” (From “dobbin”, familiar name for a horse).
Donah — An older woman.
Dots — The band’s sheet music.
Dukkering — Fortune telling.
En Ferocité — Term used by European circuses to describe the style of American wild animal acts, with the animals being presented as untamed and dangerous, in acts involving pistol shooting and whip cracking, the trainer barely controlling the animals at imminent risk of his life. European circusess presented animals en douceur, showing the beasts as obedient and docile, arranging themselves into various still positions or “tableaux.”
E. O. — A fairground gambling game.
Feke or Fake — A whip (noun,) or as a verb, to make or do something surreptitiously or dishonestly. You can feke something to someone by giving it to him secretly.
Flatties — Non-circus people.
Flick-Flack — A backward handspring. See the American term “flip-flaps.”
Fun Fair — What in America would be called a carnival.
Gadge — (Sometimes “gadjo” or “Gorgio”). To a gypsy, a gadje is anyone who isn’t a gypsy.
Gaff — The fairground. Romani for ‘town.’ In Victorian slang, a show or exhibition, a “penny gaff” was a cheap show or vulgar entertainment. Also, can have the same meaning as in America: the subterfuge by which a game is rigged or a stunt or trick (including magic tricks) is operated. Another uniquely British meaning is “to mess something up.”
Gaffer — A gentleman, or the boss.
Gallery — Traditional circus bleacher seating like steps. Low gallery seating has only seat boards and your feet touch the ground. In high gallery seating you put your feet on the board (and sometimes the clothes) of the person below.
Galloper — Merry-go-round (q.v.) of British manufacture, especially one on which most or all seats are horses and most or all have an up-and-down motion.
Grai — A horse.
Heath Robinson — A ‘jerry-rigged’ cobbled-together repair. Named after a famous artist who portrayed implausibly and comically complex contraptions (in America, cartoonist Rube Goldberg lent his name to similar devices).
His Gills — One of the names you use when you don’t remember a person’s real name; ‘whatsizname.’
Jal — Romani both for ‘to come’ and ‘to go.’
Jal Orderly — To come or go quickly; to pack up and get on the road smartly and quickly or set up the same way.
Jib — The lingo.
Jogger — To entertain.
Joggerin’ Omi — Entertainer, especially a street musician.
Jossers — Non-circus people.
Jugal — A non-performing dog (ones that just hang around.)
Kativa — Bad.
Ken — House or office.
Khazie — Toilet, from the Romani for ‘door.’ Spellings vary widely, sometimes “Carsy” or “Kazy.” The term has passed into countrywide use.
Kushti — Nice.
Lacing — The system of eyelets on one edge and rope loops on the other edge of a canvas top which are used to join sections of canvas together. Also the edge of a section of canvas which has either eyelets or hoops, e.g. “pass through the lacing.”
Lunge Line — A centrally-fixed rope tied to a horse’s head to keep it running in a circle.
Mangiare — Food (for humans or animals), from the Italian for “to eat.” Sometimes shortened to ‘jarry.’ In vulgar use, ‘jarry’ includes the sexual meaning of ‘to eat.’
Martin Harvey — Refers to a legendary performer whose chief talent was faking illness to get out of performing.
Merry-Go-Round — One of the oldest amusement rides, a circular platform holding seats usually shaped like horses and almost always accompanied by band-organ music. Also see “roundabout” and “galloper.”
Minger — Policeman. Most Romani terms for the trades end in some variant of “-engro.’
Molti — Very much.
Mr. & Mrs. Wood & All the Little Woods — Empty seats in a house.
Nanti — No, nothing, or don’t.
Omi — A man.
Pal — Friend; Romani for ‘brother.’
Palone — A young woman.
Panatrope — Recorded music.
Paper House — A performance where most of the patrons came in on free tickets.
Parca — To pay up.
Parlari — The circus and fairground “in” language. As a verb, to talk.
Parni — Water.
Parni Chat — The gentlemens’ toilet.
Patter — The words used by clowns in a speaking act, or the narrative spoken by someone during an exotic act. In general theatrical use, a “patter song” is a song full of intricate rhymes executed as rapidly as diction will allow.
Pig — Applies to any animal with particularly small eyes (even elephants or bears.)
Prad — A horse.
Pug — A monkey.
Pull Down — Dismantling the tent.
Rakli — A non-Gypsy girl (Raklo for a boy).
‘Recting — Putting up the tent (short for “erecting”).Ring Doors — The curtained-off area behind the artists entrance, made so that the performers can stand in the tent without being seen.
Ring Door Curtains — The curtains through which the artists enter the ring.
Ring Groom — In the days of horse-drawn circuses there were two sorts of horse grooms: those for the draft horses and those for the ring (show) horses. Nowadays a ring groom is the man who fetches and carries props in the show.
Rokker — To understand. “I rocker the jib” means “I understand the language.
“Roller — The special harness used on a Ring Horse by the bareback rider. It has a handle on each side.
Romani — The gypsy language, from which many British circus terms derive.
Roundabout — A merry-go-round (q.v.) Also called “carousel” if the ride is of American or European manufacture, and “galloper” (q.v.) in some cases.
Rum Col — Literally, Romani for ‘best friend.’ In use, the boss.
Run-In — A short bit done by a clown to fill in a pause. The clown runs in to do something that is not long enough to be an actual act.
Scarper — To run away
Shush — To steal.
Slanger or Slang — As a noun, the tent. As a verb, to work, as in “Are you going to slanger today?”
Slap — Makeup.
Spot — An act. A performer’s first spot is usually his specialty act, his second spot another type of act.
Stick and Rag Show — A low-quality ‘mud show.’
Tentmen — Roustabouts.
Tent Master — Boss Canvasman.
Tawni — Small.
Tilt — The Big Top, the “roof” of the tent.
Tober — The circus lot, from the Romani for the road, as in ‘on the road.‘
Tober Omi — Circus owner, or lot manager; the boss.
Toby Clown — Clown who works the road leading to the tober (lot).
Toby Mush — Tramp.
Voltige — From the French or German for flying, the equestrian trick in which the performer jumps on and off the horse, stands, kneels and even dances on the horses back
Wallings — The canvas walls of the tent.
Euro Circus Slang
Advise — The official schedule, posted just behind the vorgang (q.v., the curtain between the “house” and backstage) to detail the order and schedule of the performance.
Antipode or antipodist — Performer who juggles objects with his hands, feet and legs while lying on a special bed. When the performer “juggles” other performers, the act is known as “Icarian Games.”
Apachi — A false clap the clowns pass to one another.
Apfel (German, meaning “apple”), or Schtrabat (Russian) — The showy climax of some aerial acrobatic acts, where an aerialist lets himself “miss” the support the audience expected him to catch, and instead catches the safety rod at the last moment.
Barrier — A low fence running along the circus ring perimeter, with an entrance at either side, the height being set so that a four-year horse of medium height could move freely with its hind hooves on the circus ring when standing on the barrier with its forehooves. The width of barrier must be sufficient for a horse to run on it at gentle trot (usually half a meter in height and one third of a meter wide.) As in other circuses, sitting on the barrier facing away from the ring is considered very bad luck.
Blange — Corresponds to the American “plange,” an aerialist’s feat of strength, a motion (also called in Russia a “back-sag somersault”) in which the body moves horizontally, forwards or backwards to the head.
Carpet Clown — A clown performing brief “bits” to fill the time between the acts while the ring cover is being laid or replaced.
Chambarrier — A ring whip for horses. Its pole is up to 5.5 m in length.
Chapiteau — French for “little cap,” a small collapsible mobile top without sidewalls, in its simplest form a tarpaulin stretched on two masts to form a marquee, inside which ring-shaped rows for spectators surround a ring.
Charivari — Literally “miscellany”, a parade of performers headed by clowns, performing various jumps on road and trampoline. Also used in other circuses with a similar definition, the word is in general daily use in Europe to mean a collection of varied little curios or, alternately, a merrily raucous celebration.
Clown — A circus actor performing comic tricks. Throughout Europe there are many more clown characters than we tend to recognize in America: carpet clown, buff-clown, auguste, eccentric clown, music clown, etc.
Compliment — Static solemn posing by performers after completion of a trick, to cue applause.
Corde Pareille — An aerial act performed on a rope hanging vertically from the rigging.
Corde Volante — French for “flying rope”, an aerial act on rope fastened on two ends to the rigging, the center hanging slack, but without the center bar that would turn it into a trapeze.
Craft-acrobat — An acrobat specializing in poses requiring great strength to hold.
Craft-juggler — Also known as a “grenade-thrower,” a juggler specializing in catching and manipulating very heavy objects.
Da-capo — A brief reprise performed by trained animals, usually horses, in the finale of act, when an animal trainer returns with applause.
Didicoy — Fairground folk.
Drei-Man-Hoch — German for “three men high,” three acrobats standing on each other’s shoulders.
Dzigits (or Tzigits) — Russian word for “Mongol horseman,” an act displaying spectacular Caucasian and Cossack horsemanship. Also called “Cossack vaulting.” At a gallop, riders somersaulting from the ground to the saddle, hang alongside or underneath the horse, etc.
Entree — A brief entrance of clown characters, a “run-in.”
Equilibre — A balancing act.
Frame — Apparatus used in aerial acts. A metal rectangle, half a meter in length and ¼ meter in width, fastened horizontally in the air; one of gymnasts (a catcher) is suspended on it by elbow supports, and the other one (flyer or “voltiger”) hangs in his hands while performing various tricks.
Girth — A special saddle-girth (belly-band) wrapped round the horse body between the withers and elbow, with two fixed handrails for the performer to hold during trick riding.
Hemisphere — One of names of the space under the circus cupola; a space in which aerial acts are performed.
Icarian Games — One of the varieties of the antipode act, what American circuses call a “Risley act.” One performer, lying on his back on a special support like a bed, “juggles” another performer.
Jury-arena: A ring to be built on a stage.
Kopfstehen — German for “head-stand,” an upside-down acrobatic stand.
Longe — Like the American “lunge line,” a special safety belt worn by a performer; one or two ropes fastened to the belt prevent a dangerous fall.
Loping (Cradle) — Apparatus used in aerial acts; it looks like children’s teeter without seat.
Motto — An exclamation belonging to, and used by, one clown, often without literal meaning, and unique to him only, said to the audience with different intonations depending on the occasion; it is a trademark of the individual performer, and is especially used by augustes.
Pantomime — A circus “play” depicting some scene or event, from heroic-battle scenes and performances involving huge stage sets to animal plays and short miniatures performed by mime clowns.
Parade — In addition to what would in America be called the “spec,” the grand entrance of all the performers, the term designated a comic dialogue, in which humorous content was often based on deafness of the interlocutor. It was played by performers at the entrance to attract people.
Passing — Controlling a horse’s run over various obstacles and barriers.
Perch — From 3 to 5.5 meters in length, this prop is held by one acrobat on his forehead, shoulders or in a special socket waist-belt socket, while another acrobat balances on the persch.
Piste — French for “track,” the circular area of ground just inside the ring.
Raus — German for “out”, a street parade.
Reprise — A clown’s short interlude played during breaks between acts.
Russian Bar — A long pole supported by an acrobat on the floor, on which another acrobat may perform or land from a jump.
Salon Acts — Acts tailored to performance on a small stage or other less-spacious venue.
Schluss — German for “end.” The finale of a clown act.
Screw — Plange (blange) or back-sag somersault with a 360-degree turn.
Spools — Circus props, hollow metal cylinders used in various circus acts.
Sprechstallmeister — German for “speaking stable master,” a “ringmaster” who would get involved in comic dialogue with a clown.
Stain-trapeze — A mobile trapeze.
Strabat — Russian term, mirroring the German “abfall,” or slip-off. The trick wherein an aerialist apparently slips from his catcher’s hands to be saved by a cord attached to the catcher’s hands. The cord itself may be set to fly into a decorative prop, providing a colorful display when tension is put on it. Some such cords even have firecrackers set into their links to add an audio “punch” to the payoff.
Strap Act — Popularized by Cirque du Soleil, the strap act features acrobatics performed with the use of “aerial straps,” long straps reaching almost to the floor, often including dance moves on the floor away from the straps, as well as the varying of swinging motion as stagehands pull the straps up up and let them down.
Strength Act — A traditional “strong man” act, or more recently, an act in which one or more performers balance their bodies in poses demanding great strength and stamina.
Touching — Controlling a horse by means of touching the animal body with the chambarier.
Trengel — From the German ‘trinkgeld’ meaning a gratuity. What a street performer collects with a plate or hat in his hands from spectators just before the performance.
Trinka — A support shaped like a bed, angled appropriately for the requirements of the particular act, used by an antipodist who lies on it and gets better support to keep his legs stretched in the air.
Uniformists — Ring workers who install and replace the circus props, prepare circus apparatuses and ring for circus acts. Uniformists are usually in two rows along the sides of the vorgang during the performance. In former times, all circus performers were obliged to work as uniformists, and this condition was made a legal provision in contracts of employment. The term ‘uniformist’ comes from the uniform worn by all such workers.
Voltige — Originally, an act in which riders standing on the backs of horses strike poses, jump from horses and across barriers. Now the term means an act in which the lower performers, while joining their hands in what they call a ‘grid’, or form a special support called a ‘chair’, throw the upper one (usually a girl) up into increasingly high positions.
Vorgang — The curtain isolating the ring from the backstage area.
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