Languages - Australian Circus Language

Australian Circus VERNACULAR
By Mark St LeonMr Ashton and Master Gayner at the Royal Ampitheatre, York Street

The pioneering, egalitarian nature of Australian society was already taking shape when circus people began to arrive from England and elsewhere in the 1840s and 1850s. Capital and labour, rather than education, breeding and inherited wealth, were the determining factors in defining one's soi-disant 'class' in the colonies.

Most of Australia's early circus people were drawn from the provincial circuses, outdoor equestrian shows, fairgrounds, music halls, salons and 'penny gaffs' of the British Isles. Some came from families politely described as 'English gypsies', meaning travelling tinkers and hawkers rather than ethnic Gypsies, people had some affinity with itinerant county fairground folk. Some arrived in chains, some of their own free will. Some had education and some had little or none.

They brought with them their performance repertoires and their daily routines - and the vernacular to which they were accustomed. This vernacular fell between the shadowy extremes represented by two of Australia's earliest and best known circus proprietors, James Ashton and Henry Burton. Ashton was 'a showman of a distinct type and bygone period', his 'brigandish' style of speech containing 'a little Romany articulation and etymology a la St Giles'. On the other hand, Henry Burton, the son of a Lincolnshire gentleman, possessed an 'exquisite suavity and pompousness'.

In 1875, Thomas Frost gave several examples of the slang then employed among England's 'amusing classes', several of which resurfaced in an Australian circus context.

Pro is simply an abbreviation of 'professional', and is used by all the amusing classes to designate actors, singers, dancers, clowns, acrobats & c ... Amongst all the amusing classes, the salary received is the screw, [and] the ghost walks when it is paid.

The English term for a somersault, a flip-flap, was customary in Australian circus speech. The American circus slang for a horse, a resin-back, was not unknown in Australian circus speech. On the other hand, there appear to have been a number of words and terms used by the local circus profession which may not have received a currency beyond Australia, indeed beyond the local profession itself.

The term screw was used in the Australian setting by 1893, while the terms pro and the ghost walks were used in circus speech in the 1930s, and probably earlier and later.

Common English circus words such as gaffer (showman), donna (lady), and tober (circus ground) were probably introduced into Australian circus at an early stage but today there are no traces of them, either in everyday circus speech or in oral records. The terms spieler (a card sharp or swindler) and buttoner (a trickster's accomplice who enticed dupes from the audience) were part of the Australian showman's usage by the 1870s and 1880s respectively, if not earlier, although both have since passed from currency.

Today, only a few examples of the English circus vocabulary survive in Australian circus usage [TABLE I]. These terms remained a part of the Australian circus vocabulary either because they were preferred over their American equivalents by the local circus community, or simply because such terms had become a part of the international vocabulary of the circus.

View Table 1...

Table 1

English term Australian Literal meaning American
Bender Bender Contortionist Bender?
Blow down Blow down Demolition of the circus tent by high winds Blow down
Flip-flap Flip Acrobat's backward handspring Handspring?
Flying act Flying act Flying trapeze act Aerial act
Joey Joey/dummy Clown Joey
King pole King pole Main/centre poles of tent.. Centre pole
Ring fence Ring boxes/bank Outer perimeter of a circus ring enclosure Ring curb

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Nevertheless, Australia's circus people acquired a number of other words and expressions that appear to have English fairground origins. These words and expressions fall into two arbitrary, but convenient, sub-groups and appear to have defied previous documentation in most cases, at least in this country. The first group [TABLE II] contains specimens which may have some resemblance to the Romany speech of the English fairground.

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Table 2

Term Literal meaning
Aleketeekenovee He's no good
'Aste that Cut that out
'Aste that up Stop that
Coat, He's on the He's no good
Don't let the mugs know Don't tell the local people
Edge that Cut that out
Fig-a-la-pa {Order to mount the line-up board]
He's on the coat He's no good
The mugs are a touch The local people are easily fooled

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Many of the terms listed in TABLE II enabled showpeople to discretely convey information to one another without alarming or offending their patrons. Although these terms have certainly been in use during the post-WWII period, it is not known how long prior to this they were in currency. On the other hand, the second group [TABLE III] is comprised of specimens of rhyming slang reflective of the London cocknies.

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Table 3

Term Literal meaning
Almond rocks Socks
Blister Sister
Bread & honey Money
Cemetery on the right A good house tonight
Cheeses and kisses Missus (ie wife)
Ducks & geese Police
John Hops Policemen
Mutton shanks Yanks
Narks Policemen
Septic tanks Yanks
Tomato sauces Horses

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A large number of words and terms are used, or have been used, by the local circus community which may not have received a currency beyond Australia, indeed beyond the local circus community itself. [TABLE IV] In most instances, I can find no listing, neither in recognised dictionaries of Australian colloquial useage nor in published lists of current American and English circus language.

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Table 4

Example Literal meaning Period UK US
Amalgamation Temporary partnership between two circuses c1900s+  
Arabs Tumblers c1910s    
Bat Slap/hit c1920s    
Beerhog A drunk c1910s+    
Booze artist Alcoholic c1920s    
Bounce the town To show in a town without notice or prior billing c1930s  
Canary A bath taken in a metal tub c1910-20    
Captain Showgirl's boyfriend c1920s    
Cheap jack Sideshowman c1898+    
Cheap john Hawker 1875    
Circus terms When you buy something, you either pay cash then and there, or take it on 'circus terms', paying whenever you can afford to pay. c1945+    
Closed them up To defeat an opposition circus for a town's Patronage c1900s+    
Colour, a A sizeable audience c1910s+    
Commonwealth show Box office takings and expenses divided equally between people in the show c1910s+    
Con merchant Confidence trickster c1920s    
Concessions Vending stalls outside a circus c1900s+  Gaff Joint 
Day bill A small bill to hang in a shop window  c1880s+  
Dead heads Members of the audience who won't clap.  c1920s+  
Dead wood Useless person, hindrance c1920s    
Drag picnic, a Attendance of an entire family at a circus Performance c1920s    
Drop watch Showman's phony watch c1920s+    
Dummy Clown c1910s+  Joey Joey
Dummy fall Acrobat's make-believe fall c1910s+    
Earwigging Eavesdropping c1920s    
Fake Resin [used in bareback riding acts] c1910s   Resin 
Fake acts Illusionary acts (eg memory and blindfold acts) c1920s  
Fakers Musicians who play by ear, not with music c1920s  
Fast Keen; to have a 'crush' on someone c1920s  
Flunky Jack of all trades c1920s  
Fold, to To finish up, to cease business c1900s+  
Freeze, a Withholding of patronage to a circus by Townspeople c1920s  Lot lice
Front business General description of the work of the advance Agent c1945+  
Gays Term of contempt for non-show people c1945+  
Gear man Assistant to a troupe of performers responsible for the maintenance and erection of their gear c1900s+
Geeing Decoy used in promoting a showman's troupe c1920s
Gut the tent To remove paraphernalia from interior of tent prior to it being dropped and rolled up C1945+  
[H]ampster Showman's accomplice who pretends to buy tickets to persuade others to do likewise. c1941+  
Handrush To hoodwink c1945+
Illywhacker Chocolate & spinning wheel showmen 1941  
Jacks Detectives
Jump the ground To using a site without permission c1920s+  
Last man off the lot The last person appointed to leave the circus lot, responsible for the collection of any forgotten items of equipment c1910s 24 hour man
Line-up board Long, open-air platform where performers display themselves prior to the commencement of a performance. Although not unknown in circus, the line-up board was more commonly used by boxing troupes and sideshows on the showgrounds in the early days. c1900s+  
Locals Townspeople [See also townies, mugs] c1900s+ Josser Gilpins
Lo-po! [Command given to alight from wagons and walk when climbing steep hill] c1870s
Lug, to To play music by ear, to improvise c1900s+
Lugs Ears c1920s+  
Masher Aggressive type, bully c1925  
Mogs Victim of sideshow trickster c1883  
Mugs Townspeople c1900s+  
Night flitters/ midnight flit Departure of a circus during the night, to escape debt collector & c c1920s  Doing a bunk
Northish In a northerly direction c1920s  
Nobs The elite of society c1888  
Nut Head c1920s  
One-nighter A one night stand c1900s+  
Pinch artist Performer who pinches another's act, costume etc c1920s  
Porch Front entrance to the circus tent   Front end
Pull down Pulling down of circus tents after the performance  Tear down
Rexona town, a good A town where the circus boys have a good time with the local girls c1928+  
Ring event Event in the showground ring c1900s+  
Ring waiters Men who set up gear in the circus ring c1945+  
Roading Travelling by road c1920s+  
Road show A show that travels by road c1920s+   Mud show
Run, a A succession of towns visited in a district c1910s+  
Scratch act An act still being broken-in c1920s  
Shake Finish to a female wire act c1920s  
Show town A town where the circus shows and in which an agricultural show is also held Day and date  
Showground Country agricultural show ground c1880s  Fair ground
Showman's grave- Yard A town not noted for being a paying proposition for a circus c1920s+  
Sight trick A good trick for the public's appreciation, although not necessarily a difficult one. c1900s+  
Snipe, to (1)Removing or altering the bills of a rival circus or other show (2) pasting circus posters on fences or walls without owner's consent c1920s+  
Spec, to open on To open without prior notice. c1920s  
Spruiker A man placed outside a show to announce its programme and attract patronage c1902+  Barker Talker
Squealer Person who betrays confidence c1900s+  
Straight act Act devoid of comedy c1920s  
Stray Illegitimate child c1920s+  
Strong game Showman's gambling game that can't be won c1920s+  
Strong show Tough opposition from another circus c1945+  
Supper Meal for performers after the show c1890s  
Taffie Toffee (colour) c1920s  
Take the nap Fake hit or slap c1945  
Taking act An attractive act c1920s  
Tarpaulin muster Meeting of the members of a circus troupe to decide a course of action c1920s  
Tent boss/boss Tentman Person in charge of putting up and taking down the circus tents c1900s+   Boss canvasman
Tentpole muster As for 'tarpaulin muster'. c1920s  
Touch/touch show Exorbitantly priced c1910s+  
Townies Townspeople c1910s  
Turned it up Gave it away c1910s  
Walapers Policemen c1945+  
Warb A circus hand c1933+   Roustabout
Wood & water joey AMenial circus rouseabout 1882  
Winter camp To lay up for the winter months c1910s+   Winter quarters
Yap Conversation c1915  

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With the exception of spruiker and warb, none of the above terms appear in Wilkes' Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms, suggesting that settled society was largely quarantined from whatever language developments were taking place within the circus community.

Words and expressions were borrowed by the circus and show people (and perhaps even lent to) other Australian occupational groups [TABLE V]. In keeping with the itinerant, provincial nature of the travelling circus, it is not surprising that these words and expressions emanated mostly from Australia's rural and stockdroving communities.

View Table 5...

Table 5

Term Literal meaning Period Original Usage
Buster Heavy fall from a horse c1920  Rural, 1878+
Cockies Farmers /div>  Rural, 1871+
Damper Bushman's bread /div> Rural, 1825+
Dinner Lunch c1915+ Drovers, 1911+
Dinner camp Camp on the road for lunch c1915+  Drovers, 1925+
Dry camp Midday dinner camp c1915 /div>
Going to camp Going to bed /div> Drovers, 1843
Hard feed To feed horses on chaff, instead of putting them out to graze c1915 /div>
Moke An inferior horse c1930 Rural, 1863+
Monty A certainty c1930 Racecourse, 1894+
Tea Dinner c1915 Rural, 1868

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The local circus industry became an increasingly multicultural/multinational one. There were Aboriginal bareback riders, German musicians, Japanese acrobats, Indian jugglers, Spanish riders and Mexican gymnasts and so on. Then there were all manner of supernumaries from English business managers to Maori grooms and Aboriginal tenthands:

On the top of these baggage wagons, damp and steaming tentmen snatched an uneasy term of sleep, with their legs dangling over the side. The drivers, from a stalwart African Negro to a Queensland Aboriginal boy, looked as hard as nails and their fertility in the use of expletives surpassed that of the most accomplished stage manager. It seemed to be their ordinary way of speech.

What words and terms, if any, the abovementioned ethnic/national groups introduced into the Australian circus argot has not been established. However, one national group did have a major impact on the development of Australian circus language. American circuses, wild west shows and carnivals came as early as 1851 and as late as 1920, while the years 1873-1892 saw several visits from the largest circuses that America had to offer. The size and splendour of the American companies easily eclipsed their Australian contemporaries. A number of American circus terms entered into the local argot.

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Table 6

American term Literal meaning Period
Bandwagon A wagon for carrying members of the band during a town Parade c1870s-1920s
Barnstorming Entertainments given by small itinerant companies c1890s-1920s
Bulls Elephants c1920s+
Bullephants Male elephants c1920s+
Cull Friend, mate [Frost refers to the term 'cully' as being the 19th century English circus man's term of 'mate' (page 309), however the term appears to have had a shortlived currency in Australian circus around the year 1910 through its introduction by visiting American circus men.] c1910-15
Dodgers Small handbills c1870s+
Dollar boards Wide boards, many years ago, was the best seating when a dollar was equal to five shillings. That was the top price. Normal seating was narrow boards. Wider boards were used to hold chairs 1870s+
Gilly loads Successive loads taken on a train. In American circus parlance, a 'gilly' was a light wagon hired for odd jobs around the circus lot. 1920s+
Jacks 'A' shaped props upon which stringers [qv] are placed to hold seating boards c1870s+
Jane Uncomplimentary term for a female 1910-30s
Jump Distance travelled between two towns 1920s+
Leg show Show that relies heavily on female talent 1920s+
Lot The circus ground c1900s+
Lot lice Locals who get in the way as the show is being got ready c1920s
Mechanic Safety device used in training acrobats and riders 1870s+
My nibs When speaking personally, showmen refer to themselves as 'my nibs' 1900s+
Opposition Opposition circus or other show c1900s+
Pad room 'Room' where the circus ring horses are dressed c1916+
Resinback Circus horse used in the ring for performing; named for the resin that is rubbed into its back to help prevent its rider from slipping. 1870s+
Rip and tear Business trickery, short changing, crooked gambling & c c1910s
Sidewalls Canvas wall enclosing perimeter of tent 1920s+
Stringers Used to hold seating boards in place on jacks [qv] 1870s+
Teeterboard Acrobat's see-saw (from Mexican 'teta-tora') 1910s +
Turnaway People turned away due to sold-out performance 1900s+
24 hour man Man on call at any time; he inspects the lot and checks arrangements made by the advance agent the day before the circus is due to arrive in town. 1920s +

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Prosperity, higher general standards of education, the availability of international travel and media accessibility and globalisation have all acted in recent years to retard the evolution of a uniquely Australian English. As for the Australian circus, most circus people of the current era can point to a complete secondary education. All of these factors are inevitably slowing down and re-defining the evolution of a distinctive Australian circus speech.

Mark St Leon, 1990

Note - Much of the above material appeared in the author's article published in the journal English Today (Cambridge University Press). See details below.

Further Reading

Frost, T. (1975), Circus Life and Circus Celebrities, London: Tinsley Brothers, 1875. [especially Ch 18]
Hughes, J. (1989), Australian Words & Their Origins, Melbourne, Oxford University Press.
Prichard, K.S. (1988), Haxby's Circus, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1988. [Especially pp 30-31].
St Leon, M. (1984), Australian Circus Reminscences, Sydney: The author.
St Leon, M. (1990), The Silver Road, The Life of Mervyn King, Circus Man, Springwood, NSW: Butterfly Books.
St Leon, M. (1994), Australian circus language: A report on the nature, origin and circumstances of Aussie argot under the big top, in English Today. Vol 10 No 1. Pp 43 - 49.
St Leon, M. (1999), Yankee circus to the fabled land: The Australian-American circus connection. Journal of Popular Culture. Vol 33 No 1. Pp 77-89.
St Leon, M. (2000), Educational practise in Australian circus, 1847-1930, in International Journal of Educational Research. Vol 33 No 3. Pp 285-295.