~Glossary of Circus Slang & Lingo~

I thought it would be useful to have a glossary of Circus terms on the WFE film blog.  Director Francis Lawrence  has used a few of these words in his Tweets, as have the Roustabouts and other performers in the film. If you’re reading, or have read, “Water for Elephants” then you’ve already come across many of these terms in the novel and may have wondered what they meant. Hopefully this page will be a helpful resource for WFE enthusiasts!

~ Performer who performs suspended above the ground on a trapeze or similar equipment (wire walking is not an aerialist act).
Baggage Stock
~ Horses used for hauling, as opposed to performing horses which are called “ring stock.”
Big Cats
~ Performing lions, tigers, panthers, etc.
Big Top
~ The main tent used for the performance. (A tent is a top plus some walls, so “the big top” would be the largest tent on the lot.)
Bullhook or Ankus
~ The bull hook was used by elephant trainers to “get the elephant’s attention” and guide the animals to their tasks.
Bullhand or Bull Handler
~ Circus employee working with the elephants. (in WFE August refers to Jacob as his ‘Bull Man’)
~ Elephants (whether male or female).
Clown Alley
~ The clowns’ dressing and prop area.
~ One who contorts, especially an acrobat capable of twisting into extraordinary positions. Part of the Circus Sideshow.
Coochie Girls
~ ‘exotic dancers’ aka ‘strippers’ who perform with the circus. May also perform sexual favors for money. (in WFE Barbara is the main coochie dancer)
Cooch Tent
~ Where the Coochie girls perform their ‘favors’.
Cookhouse, Cook Shack
~ The place where the circus personnel eat. (in WFE when the flag went up on the cookhouse it was time to eat)
~ An act by horses trained in dance like stylized movements; the animals’ paces are guided by subtle movements of the rider’s body.
Dukie (or Dukey) Bag
~ Bag lunch provided for workers on the jump. (“On the jump” was an extra long ride between towns, when Dukies had to be provided for the working men.)
Dukie (or Dukey) Lunch
~ The first circus cookhouse was jocularly nicknamed “The Hotel du Quai,” after an elegant Parisian hotel across the street from the Louvre.  When read by uneducated people it came out “Dukie” and the name stuck.
Equestrian Director
~ The “stage manager” of the show, in formal riding wear (top hat, red jacket, etc.) who decided and signaled the pacing of the acts. His costume, functions and whistle were later adopted by ringmasters when they became chief announcers instead of livestock-handlers. (in WFE August is referred to as the Equestrian Director)
First of May
~ A novice performer or worker in his first season. Shows usually play the season’s opening spot on the first of May, and you’ll always find new help hired on the first of May who have never worked shows before.
Flying Squadron
~ The first trucks/workers to reach the lot ahead of the circus.
Grand Entry
~ The opening parade, also called the “spec” (for “spectacle”), in which all the artists enter. (see ‘Spec’ for more details)
~ The seating area facing the center ring of a three-ring circus, flanked by the less favorable viewing area called the “stalls.”
Grease Joint
— The hot-dog or grill concession trailer.(mentioned in the first sentence of the WFE prologue)
Hay Burners
~ Any of the hay or grain eating animals of the circus, as opposed to the meat eaters (Big Cats, etc.)
High Wire
~ A tightly-stretched wire far above the ground on which a wire walker performs.
Hippodrome Track
— The oval area between the rings and the audience.

Jake (and Jake Leg) ~ Jamaica Ginger Extract was a late 19th century patent medicine that provided a convenient way to bypass Prohibition laws, since it contained between 70-80% ethanol by weight. Many used it as a replacement for alcohol and became ill due to the harmful additives. (click on the link to read more)
~ Any circus performer (originally specific to acrobats), but you never call them that to their face.

Liberty Act ~ Liberty horses are trained horses that perform without riders or tethers, with only commands from the horse trainer (in WFE Marlena’s horses are part of the Liberty act)
~ In its broadest sense, the area where all the concessions, rides and shows are located in a circus.
Monday Man ~
You would see him when you needed a change of clothes. He would provide you with clothing that was stolen off the local townsfolk’s clotheslines on wash day, which was usually Monday.

Patches ~ Their job was to smooth things over with the Rubes when they wanted their money back, so they wouldn’t cause problems.
Red Lighted
~ A method of getting rid of you: the circus departs without paying while you’re not looking (all you see when trying to pick up your check is red lights disappearing down the road); or tells you to meet the circus somewhere, but the circus goes somewhere else; some sources even use this word to mean that an unpopular person is thrown from the back of a moving vehicle/train. (in WFE this term is used quite a bit and refers to August’s method of disposing of unwanted Circus workers. He simply has Blackie ‘red light’ them, thus throwing them off the moving train)
~ The circle in which circus acts are presented. Center ring was about 42 feet, it was also bigger and heavier made because that is where most of the animal acts worked. It was made strong enough that the horses could walk on it. The side or end rings were about 36 feet and not made as heavy.
~ The apparatus used in high wire or aerial acts.
Ring Horse
~ A horse which performs in the center ring, trained to maintain timing despite distractions.
Ring Stock
~ Circus animals which perform in the show, including horses, llamas, camels, and ponies.
~ The show’s Master of Ceremonies and main announcer. Originally, he stood in the center of the ring and paced the horses for the riding acts, keeping the horses running smoothly while performers did their tricks on the horses’ backs.
~ A circus workman, laborer.

Rube ~ circus lingo for a local townsperson or townfolk.
~ Standard circus march tunes, so called because they are usually played with great vigor.
Seventeen Wagon
~ The wagon where paychecks are distributed.
Shanty or Chandelier
~ The man who works the lights during the circus performance.
~ The canvas wall that hangs below a canvas ‘top,’ as in ‘big top.’ What most outside the business would call a ‘tent’ is the canvas top with its sidewalls attached.
Sledge Gang
~ Crew of men who pounded in tent stakes. (click here to see a vintage sledge gang)
~ Short for ‘spectacle.’ A colorful pageant or grand entry which is a featured part of the show; usually the opening number where all of the circus performers and animals are presented in full regalia along with the circus band.
Spec Girls
~ Showgirls who appear in the spec.

Stand ~ Any town where the circus plays, as in ‘one-night stand.’
“Stars and Stripes Forever”
~ The band reserved this Sousa march as a signal that an emergency had come up, calling for the clowns to come running out, directing public attention away from the emergency, or for the audience to be evacuated. (in WFE this is called the ‘Disaster March’)

Train Master ~ Employee responsible for every aspect of the train, whether moving or at rest.
Trunk Up ~ Command to an elephant to raise his trunk in a salute.
Twenty-four-hour Man ~ An advance man who travels one day ahead of circus. Usually puts up “arrows” to guide trucks on the jump.
Water Wagon
~ The water wagon circulated around the lot dispensing water for numerous uses: filling water buckets for performers to wash in, watering the animals, spraying the ground to keep the dust down, filling the drinking-water barrels placed around the lot (they had blocks of ice in them and a tin cup on a chain), and hosing down the elephants.
Zanies or Zanni
~ Clowns.

Published on June 19, 2010 at 4:05 pm  Comments (17)  

17 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. im interested in the barkers you know the ones who would rally for the concessions

  2. What’s a ‘card’, as in “When PT Barnum lost his card, he donned blackface and did a minstrel act”. (quote not verified)

  3. Under “Dukey Bag” the definition includes the phrase, “on the jump”. It would be helpful to further define that phrase as well.

    • I’ve added the definition


  5. Thanks for a very informative read. I’m a student in an online class called Mermaid Circus and this page on your site was given as reference material by a fellow student. Without reading the book, one can tell the circus was a hard life, not nearly so romantic as I thought when I was a child and loved all the excitement and characters of this fantasy world come to life.

  6. Thank you for this great blog! Finally reading this superb novel, and with 50% read, I have managed to determine meanings of most terms from context……except patches! Hooray! But this blog makes a great novel even better. Not sure that I want to see the film…..must be fairly graphic?

  7. One’s personal possesions could also be ‘red-lighted’. During my years w/ Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, dishes left in the (community)sink too long would sometimes get thrown off the train vestibule during a run.

    • Sometimes even people (troublemakers) would be thrown from the train. The last thing they would see (if still conscious) would be the red light on the caboose going down the tracks.

  8. Thank you for your very informative blog site. I am in the process of writing a novel about the circus, Hartford 1944 and have found a wealth of information here to use in my research.

    In the town of Hartford Connecticut, in the summer of 1944, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey circus comes to town. Janie McConaughey is an eleven-year-old girl with schizophrenia. When fire breaks out under the big top, only Janie knows the truth—but can Janie ever be sure what is real and what is a hallucination?


  9. Nice blog! Please add “grift” as referenced in WFE.

  10. I just finished reading the book. The information you provide here is very helpful. Thanks!

    • My grandparents were with with Ringling during the 30’s to the late 60″s. I too have sawdust in my blood, but I had forgotten some of the lingo. Your information has been very helpful with my making scrapbooks for our sons. Thanks!

  11. Wondered about the term, red-lighting, looked it up and found this. I hope to teach the book in my college English class, and the list will help students tremendously! Thanks

  12. Thanks for the site. Even though readers may be a little in the dark, I find an authors need to somehow work definitions into the prose contrived and distracting. It takes away from the story line unnecessarily. If one wants clarification, that is what research is for. And research takes you along other lines and in the end you learn more anyway. Yours is a nice reference.

  13. Nice addition to the blog. Helps orient the readers to the language of the circus.

  14. Very cool. I’m gonna try to work some of that lingo into my every day conversations as a way to get ready for WFE. ;o)

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