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Circus Lingo

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Train

2009 Red Unit Circus Train Report and Photos from Anaheim and Ontario, CA, by Carl Morrison

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5.  Circus Lingo

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This is information I found on the Internet when I was looking for the circus definition of "Donniker."  It is from Carson & Barnes Circus website, and is a Press Release (as is evident from the fill-in-the-blanks in the release.)  You might find some new vocabulary words herein.

Circus Lingo

    When the mighty five-ring Carson & Barnes circus comes to town on (your
showdate) you're apt to hear some strange language.  Over the past one
hundred years circus folk have developed and adapted a vocabulary all their
own.  It's not meant to keep anyone in the dark; it's simply a reminder of the
robust and wry international outlook kinkers and Joey’s have as they work and
play under the big top. (Kinkers are performers and Joey’s are clowns.)

      For instance, when "the eagle flies" or "the ghost walks", it simply means that
payday has arrived.  In the old days of tented circuses the pay wagon would fly a
special pennant, known as an 'eagle', to let the performers know that their
salaries were ready and the traveling spook had nothing supernatural about it; it
was an editorial comment on the insubstantiality of their weekly paycheck.

      Of course if the show didn't "make the nut" there might not be a payday at
all.  Back when all circuses traveled by wagon the local sheriff (who was referred
to disparagingly by circus folk as "the town clown") would often come by before
the performance and remove some of the lug nuts off a few wagons, which would
be returned when said sheriff had verified that the show had paid all their
outstanding hotel, feed and grain, and other local bills.  If the bills remained
outstanding the sheriff pocketed the lug nuts, thus preventing the wagons from
rolling off into the night.  Every showman worried about “making that nut” so the
wagons could move.  The best way to do that, of course, was to have a "straw
house", which meant that the audience was so packed into the tent that there
were no more bleacher seats available and bales of straw would be set down by
the rings for the overflowing masses.  The showman's worst nightmare was a
visit from "Mr. and Mrs. Rose", a pun on the word rows -- meaning that there
were rows and rows of empty seats bleakly staring back at the performers.

       Of course you can always fill the bleachers with "guppies" by using "Annie
Oakleys".  Children are  referred to as guppies by circus people, for their
tendency to swarm and wiggle.  The great Annie Oakley, besides being a dead
shot, was also notorious for giving away free tickets to her shows, until all
free passes were nicknamed in her honor.

      One word that continues to puzzle wordophiles is the word calliope, as
pronounced by circus veterans.  The word itself comes from ancient Greek, and
refers to a goddess of music (although what such a refined being might think
about the wheezy, thundering noise a calliope makes is another matter!)  Most
people pronounce the word as "kah - lye - ah - pee".  But the denizens of the
circus always refer to it as a "kal - ee - ope".  Nobody knows why.

     Controversy rages over the word "donniker", which is the universal term
applied by circus folk to any and all commodes and water closets.  So far, the
closest guess anyone has is that the term came from the German "Donner und
Blitzen", which literally means 'thunder and lightning" but which the Germans also
use to mean emptying their bowels -- hence your grandparents use of the term
'thunderpot' for that tin or ceramic pan that used to be under their beds at night.  
Donniker, it's thought, is just a corruption of the German phrase.  But it is still a
matter of heated debate among circus aficionados.
     Sadly, not everyone finds the circus life to their liking and so they "bite the
grass", or leave.  It's very similar to the old cowboy phrase, 'bite the dust', but
with a Scandinavian tang.  To this day in Norway when someone gives up on a
project or a relationship they have "bitten en grassen'.  It is thought that Edgar
Bergen, a native of Norway, used the phrase on the last day he played with the
circus before crossing over to vaudeville and radio with his dummy Charlie
McCarthy, and the phrase has stuck ever since.

      We hope you'll come on down to the circus yourself to hear some more of
this colorful jargon.  You might get a chance to do some cherry pie, make some
abba-dabba, and get a dukey box!

    The Carson & Barnes Circus will be playing at (showtimes), at (the lot
location) in (your City). Tickets are available at


Next Page:  Chapter 6: The Red Unit 2009 Performance

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