Carnival, Circus and Vaudeville Lingo (Main Page)

Posted by on January 16, 2019

What Are Those Guys Saying?


LINKS TO DICTIONARY PAGES

Carny Lingo A-C  D-I  J-P   Q-Z

Circus Slang   Vaudeville Slang


 Every trade has a history, a culture and secrets, all most vividly expressed in the special terms used by its workers. The “lingo” of any industry serves many purposes: it’s a shorthand for the complex tasks unique to the business, it defines who ‘belongs’ and who doesn’t, and it keeps the secrets of the business hidden ‘backstage’ away from the public. 

Here are the unique words used on the carnival lot, a language that defines a world of wonders. You can dip into this glossary to seek individual terms, but you can also read it as a whole, using it as a detailed guide to the carnival/sideshow/circus/vaudeville worlds. I hope it avoids being, in Studs Terkel’s words, “like a National Geographic documentary on the Zulu people, all detail and no insight.” Some contributors have supplied (but I have chosen not to include) old and new slang terms widely used in mainstream culture (and, therefore, not specific to the field). Terms in active use vary significantly between various areas of the U.S.


Oh, yeah … one more thing:

“Carny,” also known as “Ciazarn”, is a special “cant” (linguistic term for a “private language”). The purpose of a cant is to keep anyone outside the culture (that probably means you, pal) from knowing what is being said. A familiarity with ciazarn is used most often to distinguish those who are seasoned carnies from those who aren’t.

A little like pig-latin, and closely related to “double dutch”, “izzle” and dozens of lesser-known variants, carnies insert an invariant infix, “eaz” (pronounced “ee-uz” or “eez” or “iz”) (an infix is like a prefix or a suffix but is inserted in the middle of a word after each consonant), to render regular language unintelligible to outsiders. For example, to say “mark”, you would say “meazark.” To say “Can we take this hick?” It would come out (hard C) “Ceaz-an weaz-e teaz-ake theaz-is heaz-ick?” Ciazarn eventually migrated into wrestling, hip hop, and other parts of modern culture.

Wikipedia lists dozens of equally confusing examples in many languages around the world, even one in Esperanto. You can hear quite a stretch of it in the old disco record “Double-Dutch Bus”, and it seems to be one of the many components of ghetto “gangsta slang.”

Ciazarn is sometimes attempted by fans who want to be accepted as “insiders,” generally resulting in snickering as soon as they leave the room.


THE CARNY CODE

I’m often asked about “the carny code” of rules for behavior. It evolved out of necessity. On the lot, as one Gibsonton resident put it, “you’re a stranger in every town you go, so we only have each other.” The rule has been reinforced through experience since outdoor entertainment became organized in medieval times.

The carnival and its denizens are exactly as “good” or “bad” as the locals want it to be. It can be a well-scrubbed family park, or a temporary “bad part of town” where you can go for a bit of sin … the choice is yours.

The townies draw that line, wherever you go. The fine upstanding church-going citizens of Anytown U.S.A. always look with justified suspicion on these weird people showing up in their town. The carnies will be here today and gone without a trace tomorrow, it says so prominently on all the posters. Carnies have no stake in the local community, they have no fixed address, they look like they just got out of prison yesterday, they certainly don’t play by your rules, and they’ve come for the express purpose of getting your money. Surely they’ll cheat you and if you’re lucky you’ll get a stuffed bear. Those guys are talking mighty sweet to every girl that comes down the midway … better keep an eye on your girlfriend! And then there are those sluts in the girlie show … ladies, watch out for your men!

The suspicion is mutual, for good reason. If you’re a carny the locals have no reason to treat you fairly (you’ve got a pocketful of the citizens’ money, surely the police could find some way to make you give it back), and many of the things about you and your co-workers that make the locals suspicious are true.

On the other hand, the carnival is a place where a person can work for a living even if he’s lost most of the resources society likes a person to have. Try to get a job anywhere else when you’ve lost your moorings … maybe you’re not content settling down in one place, maybe you have a troubled past, maybe the road is better than whatever you’ve left behind, maybe you just aren’t cut out for the nine-to-five life. All those things could be viewed as signs of a free spirit, or they could be marks of someone who’s just not fit to be among decent people. It all depends which side of the fence you’re looking from. So a carny needs some rules to be able to get along in such company: don’t nose into anyone else’s business, don’t screw up anyone else’s game, and when the trucks leave the lot all debts are paid. And you need to band together to protect yourselves: don’t give ’em your real name (after all, there was that little disagreement in the last town just a few miles away), and stand by your fellows (shout ‘hey rube’ and rowdy locals quickly find that you have more and bigger and meaner friends on your side).

I’m sure I’ve forgotten something, but in essence that’s “the carny code”: it’s us against the world, and it’ll always be that way, so deal with it.

Comments are closed.