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The following glossary is a compilation of some of the more common terms, including those which have become outdated as the circus changed.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.


Click to return from whence you came! ~ A ~
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 costume.

Click to return from whence you came! ~ B ~
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 attractions within.
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.

Click to return from whence you came! ~ C ~
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 arena floor.
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 or chivaree.
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 changed.
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 circus begins.

Click to return from whence you came! ~ D ~
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.

Click to return from whence you came! ~ E ~
En Ferocite - The term used by European circuses to describe American wild animal acts,
      as opposed to their "tableau" presentations.
Equestrian Director - Ringmaster (derived from early circuses featuring primarily equestrian performers).

Click to return from whence you came! ~ F ~
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" --to walk.
Funny Ropes - Extra ropes added to regular ones, usually at angles, to give extra stability and spread to canvas tent.

Click to return from whence you came! ~ G ~
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 Towner.
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 outlandish props.
Guys - Heavy ropes or cables that help to support poles or high wire rigging.

Click to return from whence you came! ~ H ~
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 townspeople.
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.

Click to return from whence you came! ~ I ~
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.

Click to return from whence you came! ~ J ~
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.

Click to return from whence you came! ~ K ~
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).

Click to return from whence you came! ~ L ~
Layout Man - The lot superintendent who decides the location of the various tents.
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.

Click to return from whence you came! ~ M ~
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.

Click to return from whence you came! ~ N ~
Nanty - Nothing.

Click to return from whence you came! ~ O ~
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 competing circuses.

Click to return from whence you came! ~ P ~
Pad Room - Dressing Room. So called because riders hang their pads there.
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 railway car.

Click to return from whence you came! ~ Q ~
Quarter Poles - Poles which help support the weight of the canvas and take up the slack between center and side poles.

Click to return from whence you came! ~ R ~
Rat Sheets - Advance posters or handbills with negative slant toward the opposition.
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.

Click to return from whence you came! ~ S ~
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 stopping.
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 parades.
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.

Click to return from whence you came! ~ T ~
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 for show.
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 circus.

Click to return from whence you came! ~ W ~
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.

Click to return from whence you came! ~ Z ~
Zanies - Clowns.