You’ve Gotta Know the Lingo: A Carnival Speak Primer

Vintage Carnival - Scanned from Slide Negative by Jim Pennucci
Vintage Carnival – Scanned from Slide Negative by Jim Pennucci

 

When Abby joins up with McClure’s Amusement’s caravan, there is a lot she has to learn and fast. It’s all very overwhelming, and one of the most overwhelming aspects of the experience is the lingo. On her first day, she’s ready to believe that the people around her are speaking a completely different language. Ruth does her best to help, teaching her some of the more important jargon.

Now you can understand them too! I’ve compiled a short list of vocabulary that might come in handy should you join a 1950s traveling carnival:

  • Blowdown: A show is knocked over by a storm. This doesn’t come up in Sideshow but it probably should. I’ve quipped more than once that the most unrealistic thing about the book is that they never have to deal with a severe thunderstorm.
  • Blowing the route: A driver gets lost between towns delaying their arrival.
  • Building a tip: Draw a crowd. This is what Abby is supposed to be doing at the bally.
  • Candy butchers: Concession vendors, in general. The term originally referred to specific vendors who sold candy
  • Date: When a show is taking place in a certain town. IE: “Our Chicago date has been bumped up”
  • First of May: Someone who is new to the carnival, like Abby. The term is thought to have originated because that is when people started showing up at the carnival looking for work.
  • Joint: A Game. A couple of game specific terms are
    • 4 way joint: Open on all 4 sides. These are the games that sit in the middle of the midway.
    • Flat games: A game in which the player cannot win.
    • Sunday schools show: A carnival that prohibits rigged games. McClure’s Amusements technically falls into this category, but they’re not great about enforcement.
    • Gaff: To rigg. This is often used with games, but also with sideshows when a performer or exhibit is made to look like something that it isn’t.
  • Jump: The move between dates
  • Lot: Show grounds (run by lot managers)
  • Lot lice: people who spend time (but not much money) on show grounds
  • Possum belly queen/princess: This somewhat derogatory term refers to the love interests of carnival performers, who would be hidden in the “possum belly” of their trailers (often so that angry family members could not find them).
  • Ride jockeys: Mechanics and ride operators
  • Rougies: Temporary help
  • Slough: Tear down of a show
  • Troupers: Workers who have been with the carnival at least a year.
  • Turn a tip: To convince crowd to buy tickets. This is another thing Abby is supposed to be doing, but isn’t very good at.

During her time at the carnival, Abby manages to grow more and more comfortable. A significant part of that is a growing fluency with these and other terminology.

Sideshow is available now for pre-order from Interlude Press. Be sure to reserve your copy today.
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