Circus Lingo from Big Top Productions (c)1995
There is a particular jargon that belongs exclusively to the
world of the circus. As in any close group, Circus lingo evolved from
convenience and daily usage. A few expressions were abridged from longer
words but carry some of their original flavor; others were coined or
invented as the need arose. A number were derived from the Italian and
French languages; still others were contributions from the Romany tongue
of the gypsies. Gradually all of these words became threads woven into
the rich tapestry of the circus.
The following glossary is a compilation of some of the more
common terms, including those which have become outdated as the circus
changed. We're sure you'll find it interesting and new.
Aba-daba / Any dessert that was served in the cookhouse.
Advance Men / Men who go into towns ahead of the circus to put up
heralds and posters publicizing the arrival of the circus.
Alfalfa / Paper money.
All Out and Over / Entire performance is concluded.
Annie Oakley / A complimentary ticket or free pass.
Auguste Clown / A clumsy, slapstick clown who wears no traditional
Back Door / Performer's entrance to the Big Top.
Bally / A platform used by spielers to give the crowd an idea of the show
to be seen inside.
Ballyhoo / The spiel shouted in front of the sideshow to attract attention.
Banner / The canvas paintings in front of the sideshow depicting the
Bibles / Programs or souvenir magazines.
Big Bertha or The Big One / Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Big Top / The main tent used for the performance.
Blowdown / When the tents are blown down by a storm.
Blow Off / The end of the show when the concessionaires come out.
Blues / The general admission seats.
Boss Canvas Man / The man whose job is to decide exactly where and
how the tents should be put up at a new circus lot.
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.
Bulls / Elephants (whether male or female).
Bunce / Profits.
Butcher / Refreshment merchants, peddler of lemonade, candy, pretzels
and other edibles.
Calliope / A musical instrument consisting of a series of steam whistles
played like an organ; pronounced "cally-ope" by circus people.
Carpet Clown / A clown who works either among the audience or on
Catcher / A 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, weighs about a ton and holds the peak of the tent.
Character Clown / A clown who usually dresses in a tramp costume.
Charivari / A noisy whirlwind entrance of clowns; also called shivaree
Cherry Pie / Extra work done by circus personnel for extra pay.
Clem / A fight.
Clown Alley / A section of tent where clowns put on their makeup and
store their props.
Clown Stop / A brief appearance of the clowns while the props are being
Clown Walk-Around / A parade of clowns during which time they stop
and do their acts.
Come-in / The period when the public is entering the arena before the
Dog and Pony Show / A derisive term for a small circus.
Dona / A woman.
Donikers / Restrooms.
Doors! / Call meaning to let the public in.
Dressage / The art of showing trained horses; animal paces are
guided by subtle movements of rider's body.
Dressed / When tickets are distributed so that all sections are
filled with no obviously empty areas.
Ducat Grabber / Door tender or ticket collector.
Dukey or Duckie-Box Lunch / The first cookhouse was known as
"Hotel du Quai." When pronounced quickly it
sounded like "dukey" and the name stuck.
Dukey Run / Any circus run longer than an overnight haul.
En Ferocite / The term used by European circuses to describe
American wild animal acts, as opposed to their
Equestrian Director / Ringmaster (derived from early circuses
featuring primarily equestrian performers).
Feet Jump-In / Equestrian riding-standing with the feet together,
bareback rider jumps from the ground or teeterboard
on to back of a running horse.
Fink or Larry / A broken novelty such as a torn balloon.
First of May / A novice performer in his first season on a circus show.
Flatties / People.
Flip-Flaps / The trick of flipping from a standing position to
the hands while bareback rider is on a running horse.
Flyers / Aerialists, especially those in flying return acts.
Flying Squadron / The first section of a circus to reach the lot
Framing a Show / Planning a circus production.
Funambulist / Rope walker. From Latin: "funis" --rope, and "ambulare"
Funny Ropes / Extra ropes added to regular ones, usually at angles, to
give extra stability and spread to canvas tent.
Gaffer / Circus manager.
Galop / Fast tempo band melodies used in certain exits and entrances.
Gilly / Anyone not connected with the circus; an outsider. See also
Gilly Wagon / Extra small wagon or cart used to carry light bits of
equipment around the lot.
Graft / A piece of work-sometimes easy, sometimes hard.
Grafters / Gamblers who often trail a show.
Grotesque / Type of clown who wears exaggerated costume and carries
Guys / Heavy ropes or cables that help to support poles or high wire
Harlequin / A clown of the commedia dell'arte who dressed in a
diamond-patterned costume and who wore a black mask.
Heralds / Circus advertisements, approximately 9 x 20 inches. which can
be pasted down or handed out. They are not in color and
consist of type and pictures.
Hey Rube! / Traditional battle cry of circus people in fights with
High School Horse / A horse who has been taught fancy steps in special
riding academies. See also Dressage.
Hits / Places such as walls of grain elevators, barns, buildings, or fences
on which heralds and posters were pasted.
Home Run / The trip from Home Sweet Home back to winter quarters.
Home Sweet Home / The last stand of the season when bill posters usually
pasted one pack of posters upside down.
Homy / A man. A bona homy is a good man.
Horse / One thousand dollars.
Horse Feed / Poor returns from poor business.
Horse Opery / Any circus (jokingly).
Howdah or Howdy / A seat, often with a canopy, on the back of an
elephant or camel.
Human Oddities / Sideshow of abnormal persons.
Iron-Jaw Trick / An aerial stunt using a metal bit and apparatus which
fits into the performer's mouth. Thus suspended he
performs his tricks.
Jackpots / Tall tales about the circus.
Jill / A girl.
Joey / A clown (derived from Joseph Grimaldi, a famous clown in
England of the 18th century).
Jonah's Luck / Unusually bad weather or mud.
Jump / The distance between performances in different towns.
Jump Stand / An additional booth near the front door used to sell extra
tickets during a rush by spectators.
Kicking Sawdust / Following the circus or being a part of it.
Kid Show / A sideshow.
Kiester / Wardrobe trunk.
Kinker / Any circus performer (originally only an acrobat).
Layout Man / The lot superintendent who decides the location of the
Lift / The natural bounce which lifts Bareback rider from ground to
back of a running horse.
Little People / Midgets or dwarfs.
Lot / Land leased by the circus for performances.
Lot Lice / Local townspeople who arrive early to watch unloading of the
circus and stay late.
Main Guy / Guy rope to hold up center pole in the Big Top.
March, The / The street parade.
Mechanic / The leather safety harness which is worn by flyers in
practice sessions and controlled by man below.
Midway / The area near the main entrance where the sideshows are located
and concessionaires sell refreshments and souvenirs.
Mud Show / Circus show that traveled overland, not on rails. So named
because the wagon wheels were frequently mired in mud.
Nanty / Nothing.
On the Show / Performers and all others connected to the circus. The
term "with" the show is not used.
Opposition Paper / Advertising posters which were put up by
Pad Room / Dressing Room. So called because riders hang their pads
Paper / Circus posters.
Parlari / Circus people talking.
Perch Act / A balancing act involving use of apparatus upon which one
person is performing while being balanced by another.
Picture Gallery / A tattooed man.
Pie-Car / The dining car of a railroad train.
Pitchmen / The salesmen at concessions on the midway.
Planges / Aerialist's body swing overs in which one hand and wrist are
placed in padded rope loop. Ponger / An acrobat.
Possom Belly / Extra storage box attached underneath a work wagon or
Quarter Poles / Poles which help support the weight of the canvas and
take up the slack between center and side poles.
Rat Sheets / Advance posters or handbills with negative slant toward the
Razorbacks / The men who load and unload railroad cars.
Red Wagon / Box office wagon, main office of circus; also money wagon.
This was usually painted red though it could be any color.
Rig / To put up aerial rigging.
Rigging / The apparatus used in high wire or aerial acts.
Ring Banks or Curbs / Wooden curbing around the ring.
Ring Barn / Regulation-sized circus ring for practice at winter quarters.
Ring Horse / A horse which performs in the center ring. He is trained to
maintain timing despite distractions.
Ring Stock / Circus animals which perform in the show, including
horses, llamas, camels, and ponies.
Risley Act / Three acrobats lying on their backs who toss a fourth
acrobat from one to the other.
Roll-Ups / Tame US aerial plunges.
Roman Riding / A rider standing on the backs of two horses.
Roper / A cowboy.
Rosinback / Horse used for bareback riding. So named because horses'
backs were sprinkled with rosin to prevent rider from slipping.
Roustabout / A circus workman, laborer.
Rubbermen / The men who sell balloons.
Safety Loop / The loop part of a web rope into which a performer
places her wrist in aerial ballet numbers.
Segue / Music bridge used in changing from one tune to another without
Shanty or Chandelier / The man who works the lights.
Shill / A man used a decoy; an employee who stands in line to make
the box office look busy and walks in without paying.
Sky Boards / The decorated boards along top of cage wagons used in
Slanger / Trainer of cats.
Sledge Gang / Crew of men who pounded in tent stakes.
Soft Lot / A wet or muddy lot.
Spec / Short form for spectacle. A colorful pageant which is a featured
part of the show; formerly used as the opening numbers,
now presented before intermission.
Spec Girls / Comedy showgirls who appear in grand spectacle.
Spieler / An announcer.
Splash Boards / Decorated bottom edge of cage wagons used in parades.
Stand / Any town where the circus plays.
Star Backs / More expensive reserved seats.
St. Louis / Doubles or seconds of food. So named because St. Louis
engagement was played in two sections.
Strawhouse / A sell-out house. Straw was spread on ground for
spectators to sit upon in front of general asmission seats.
Swags / Prizes
Tableau Wagons / Ornamental parades wagons. Costumed circus
performers rode atop them.
Tail Up / Command to an elephant to follow in line.
Talkers / Ticket takers for sideshow--never called "barkers"."
Tanbark / The shredded bark from trees from which tannin has been
extracted and used to cover circus arena ground.
The Big One / Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Toot Up / To get attention of spectators by playing the calliope.
Tops / Tents; for example, dressing tops are where the performers dress
Towners / Townspeople; any outsiders. See also Gilly.
Troupers / Circus entertainers.
Trunk Up / Command to an elephant to raise his trunk in a salute.
Turnaway / A sold-out show.
Twenty-four-hour Man / An advance man who works one day ahead of
Wait Brothers Show / Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Show.
So called because the posters read, "Wait for the Big Show."
Web / Dangling canvas-covered rope suspended from swivels from the top
of the tent.
Web Girl / Female who performs on web in aerial ballet sequence.
Web-Sitter / Ground man who holds or controls the web for aerialists.
Windjammer / A member of a circus band.
With It / An expression meaning loyalty to the show.