Windy Van Hooten’s Circus Lingo

7 Aug

Matilda: the Single-O
(Art by Robin E. Kaplan)

When I named the co-owner of the sideshow Robin Marx, I felt so sly and so brilliant (and, yes, so smug). I humbly kept the breadth and depth of my circus knowledge under the radar. If readers only knew what I knew and that I knew it when I wrote it, they would shake their heads, amazed by my disciplined linguistic acrobatics.

For those of you not in the know: A mark is a person attending a circus or sideshow, looking to spend money (also known as a sucker). Robin Marx is a “utility name”; it’s what a carny uses when they want to give a false name for himself or anyone else on the show.

“Robbin’ marks” … get it????

All right, that comment about my endless circus knowledge is a big fat lie. I speak circus as well as I speak French (veuillez, veuillez tell me vous comprende la english?). I learned circus details the way a writer learns to write about everything they don’t know: The Interwebs.

My book’s most notable source? The online Carny & Circus & Vaudeville Dictionary. It’s….amazing. Going beyond simple definitions, it offers the juicy stories behind the semantics:

MarkWhen a carny spotted a towny with a big bankroll, he would give him a friendly slap on the back leaving a chalk mark so other carnies would know that this customer had lots of money. Often the ticket seller would mark the ‘mark.’ The booth would have a high counter, above the average person’s eyesight, and the ticket seller would short-change the customer, leaving the change on the counter. If the customer didn’t notice or didn’t count his change, the ticket seller would lean over to give him some “friendly” advice about the best attractions, putting his hand on the customer’s shoulder to point him toward the show he simply must see, simultaneously dusting his back with chalk from a hidden supply. If the customer instead complained about the wrong change, the ticket seller could always push the remaining change to him and say “I told you to take it.” And what do you do when you spot a mark? You “play” him – that’s right, just like you play a fish.

GOD I LOVE THAT! What a bunch of crafty grifters!

You know, I always wondered about authors who write on topics they’ve only researched, crime and medical and detective novels in particular. I can see them idly Googling “police jargon for authors”. How do they know that they’re not mangling every other piece of dialog? Then again, if I only wrote what I knew, my novels would be about my cat, oversleeping, dropping things in front of people, and abandoning awkward coffee orders half-way through (“I want an iced americano, decaf, 12 oz., 2 shots with–actually, whatever is fine.”)

Anyways. Obviously, the thought of misusing the words was scary for me..yet, with the lingo I dug up, I found myself fighting against including everything. Instead, I picked out just a few phrases to add some depth without over-doing it. Besides, circus people would never read my book, right…? Right.

…except, of course, until last month when I decided to send my book to the very people whose websites and books helped me tell the story. Because I wanted to know what they thought of my made-up circus. Because I’m a glutton for finding out problems with things I cannot change. And, yes, because I’m a celebrity chaser.

Ballycast Episode #56 – July 31, 2012:
The Man Who Taught Me to Talk

The first person to respond was none other than the author of the Carny & Circus & Vaudeville Dictionary, plus host of Ballycast (a very cool podcast about carnivals, sideshows, and burlesque), Wayne Keyser. To my delight, he actually thought I did all right, for a Forty Miler:

“What [Molly E. Johnson has] thankfully not done is what many lazy writers resort to: peppering the prose with double handfuls of trade lingo as if that were enough. It’s always obvious, it’s always insulting a little to the reader,  and I’m delighted to say that she hasn’t done that! Spartacus of shadows is a great read.”
– Wayne Keyser, Ballycast

With Mr. Keyser’s brief but welcomed blessing, I can now officially say I know more circus lingo than French. (Oui comprend solo un poco français.)

SO! When reading Spartacus and the Circus of Shadows or gobbling up that Carny lingo*, keep your eyes peeled for:

  • First of May
  • Stars and Stripes Forever
  • Mark
  • Outside talker
  • The back yard
  • Eli (as in Big Eli)
  • Heat
  • Single-O

You’ll be able to figure out some words and phrases using the context of the story while you may need to look up others–as you should always do when you see a word or phrase you don’t know. Emunctory.

*WARNING: Once you browse this dictionary, attempting to read or watch Water for Elephants will become painful.
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