American Circus Slang British/Euro Circus Slang
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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."
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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.
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.
Chat A thing. May also refer to the spiel or the 'barker,' which term is reported by some sources to be in use in England.
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. See sidebar about Gypsies and fortunetelling.
En Ferocitι 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. A bad man can feke an animal by hitting it.
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.)
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.
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 Chat The gentlemens' toilet. Chat = 'thing.'
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; to 'burn the lot' or 'pay them off in the dark.' To 'scarper the tober' is to run off without paying the rent.
Shush To steal.
Slanger or Slang As a noun, the tent. As a verb, to work, as in "Are you going to slanger today?"
Spot An act. A performer's first spot is usually his speciality act, his second spot another type of act.
Stick and Rag Show A low-quality 'mud show.'
Tent Master Boss Canvasman.
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.
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
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" or "assorted knicknacks," 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 Ό 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.
Gauze A word rarely used by today's performers; it means outdoor performing, performing in the garden, in the park, etc.
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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