The circus has historically set itself apart from regular society for its own preservation, not to mention safety. It also had reasons to keep customers from knowing everything that was going on. One way of achieving this was the invention of a unique slang or lingo. While I use this language throughout the Rex Koko, Private Clown series, and readers can probably understand it through context, it was suggested that a glossary might help the reader.

Many other terms in the book come from classic pulp fiction and film noir. A few of these are listed below. And some terms I just made up. But I won’t say which ones.

advance ahead of the show
agent suit a clown’s costume
alfalfa money
all out and over The entire performance is concluded.
Annie Oakley a complimentary ticket or free pass
at liberty not currently contracted to a show
bally broad showgirl
ballyhoo the spiel shouted in front of the sideshow to attract attention
bally stand the platform or podium where a spieler attracts customers
band organs an automated pipe organ designed for use in a public fairground to provide loud music to accompany rides and attractions, designed to mimic the playing of a full band with wind and percussion instruments
barbecue stool electric chair
Big Bertha Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, who dominated the circus landscape after they combined in 1919
bet the nut to bet all your stake or portion
Billboard wedding couple paired up for a season (or longer) without benefit of a legal marriage
bip child
blind pig illegal drinking establishment
blower telephone
blow-off the big finish of a gag, or the finale of a show
boil-up On days when there wasn’t a show, workingmen would take sponge baths and “boil up” their clothing in steaming basins to get rid of body lice (“crums”).
bo man
bona homie “good man”
boost to steal
Boston pew-pounder fart
buffalo a nickel
buffone Italian for clown
bull an elephant, either male or female; a policeman
bull row housing for elephants
bunce profits
bust-out entry into an arena of many clowns at once
buzzer policeman’s badge
cabbage money
cage boy backstage assistant to a lion tamer
calaboose jail
callabagas money
chaldagga money
chemizoots money
cherry pie extra work for extra pay
chippie woman of easy virtue
clem a fight, usually with townies
cloat to steal, pilfer, or short change
close ahead of paper returning to winter quarters before the announced or posted end of the season.
Clown Alley an area of a tent or lot where clowns put on their makeup and store their props
“Clown allez!” French for “Clowns, go!” This order was often shouted to mobilize the joeys in the troupe to perform or divert the audience in the event of a mechanical failure or accident. It later became Anglicized to “clown alley”.
conk head
cooch vagina
cooch show strip show or burlesque show
cooler prison
croaker doctor
cut up jackpots tell exaggerated stories, reminisce
denali money
donkey jacket a blue woolen jacket worn by workingmen
donniker toilet
dopester a person who collects and supplies information, typically on sporting events or elections
ducat ticket
dukey run an unusually long distance
elmers townies
en ferocite describes an act in which the animals are “attacking”, as opposed to standing in a “tableau”
fantods a state or attack of uneasiness
Feejee Mermaid one of P.T. Barnum’s most famous attractions, supposedly the mummified corpse of a mermaid. In actuality, it was the torso of a baby monkey sewn onto the fin of a large fish or porpoise.
filch to steal something small or of little value
finked a broken novelty such as a torn balloon
First of May a novice performer in his first season with a show
flatfoots police
flattie person; operator of a crooked game
fleece to swindle
frogskin money; currency
funambulists rope walker
fuzz police
gaff anything controlled or faked, either a fixed game or a doctored-up freak
gasper cigarette
gazoonie a young, immature person or worker
gee man
geek a performer, usually working as a “wild man”, who sits in a pit of snakes. Some occasionally bite the heads off birds or small animals as part of the act (known as a glommer or glomming geek).
geetus money
gink man
glim to look
globiosky money
goosh money
glom to steal
grease joint hot dog and hamburger stand
grift confidence game, swindle
grind spiel; a certain set of words used repeatedly by a sideshow talker or other hustler
grouchbag a purse that show people might wear around their necks. Interestingly, it may be the origin of Groucho Marx’s nickname, as the early incarnations of his character in vaudeville were the ethnic stereotype of the “stingy Jew”.
gunsel gunman
guy wire a tensioned cable holding up the perimeter of a circus tent
head south to die
heat police
heebie-jeebies a state or attack of uneasiness
“Hey Rube!” traditional call to arms indicating a fight between kinkers and towners
high-school horse act horses that have been taught fancy steps in special riding academies
high-grass show a circus that plays mostly small, isolated towns, where the lots are underused and overgrown with weeds and grass
hinky dishonest, suspect
hippodrome arena for equestrian (horse) acts
hokum nonsense
honey wagon a wagon or truck for collecting and carrying excrement
hostler a handler of baggage or freight horses; a teamster
hoosegow jail
ink and a sinker coffee and a donut
iron jaw an aerial stunt in which performers work suspended by a mouthpiece clenched in their teeth
jill woman
joey clown (derived from Joseph Grimaldi, a famous clown in England in the 18th century)
jump the distance between performances in different towns
kack to kill
kay fabe the secrets that are to be hidden from potential “marks”. More a carnival term than a circus one.
keister wardrobe trunk
king pole the first pole of the tent to be raised
kinker any circus performer (originally only an acrobat, who needed massages and such to get the kinks out of their bodies)
kip sleeping place
knock mops to fornicate
lammed off gone “on the lam”, escaped
larry sometimes spelled “Larrie” and also known as a “Larry Cadota” or fink, this is a broken toy or novelty that can’t be fixed and therefore is worthless. It is of course still sold to the public. Almost as an inside joke, candy butchers sometimes describe their wares as “Larry Cadota Toys,” as if that increased their value. Often this actually helps move the item.
lettuce money
main stem primary street of a city or town
make your nut to make enough money to cover expenses. When circuses travelled by wagon, local sheriffs often confiscated the lug nuts off the wagons until they received their bribes and were convinced the circus folk had not behaved (too) badly. Thus, a circus needed to “make its nut” in order to move on.
marge money
mark target of a swindle
marker promissory note
mazoomah money
mickey potato; a Mickey Finn, or poisoned cocktail
mitt camp fortune-telling booth
mitt reader fortune teller
moniker name
mud show a show that traveled by horse drawn wagons between the towns on its route. All circuses were ‘mud shows’ until the early 1920s when they began moving on trucks.
mudge face
nanty nothing
nautch joint bordello
neck oil liquor
net-sitter person who assists an acrobat or daredevil with their safety nets
Old Sparky electric chair
one-sheet poster; the basic measurement of circus advertising paper
palaver prolonged and idle discussion
palhaco Portuguese for clown
palooka a stupid or loutish person; a clumsy prizefighter
patch legal adjuster or fixer; a bribe with official authorities
payasito Spanish for little clown
pazzo Italian for crazy
pecky money
pigeon to swindle
pinhead sideshow performer with a birth defect of a small head and mental deficiencies
pins legs
planges aerial stunt in which the acrobat’s hand and wrist are placed in padded rope loop and he or she swings the body upside-down repeatedly
ponger acrobat
possum-belly queens A possum belly was a storage compartment sometimes attached to the underside of circus freight cars. A possum-belly queen was a working girl who might use the compartment for assignations.
privilege the consideration paid for the right to place a concession on a carnival midway. Early day circus owners sold privileges for almost everything on the lot except the performance itself.
razorback worker who loads and unloads railroad cars
redlighting throwing a person off a train while it’s moving, a rough form of circus justice
riding academy brothel
road apples horse droppings
roscoe gun
Roman rings gymnastic rings rigged from the top of the tent
roundheel woman of easy virtue
roustabout or roustie circus workingman or laborer, particularly the big top crew
route card card listing the schedule of dates, towns and miles travelled for circus stands for a period of time. While shows would sell these cards to performers and workers, this might invite defections if another show were in the vicinity.
rube yokel
runs railroad crossings
St. Genesius patron saint of actors and comedians
sap blackjack
sawbones doctor
scoot money
scream sheet newspaper
scuttlebutt gossip or rumor
shiv knife
simoleons money
skeevy unpleasant, squalid, distasteful
skejeema money (originated by Hart Seely)
skinner teamster or horse driver
skinny inside information
skins dollars, money
skirt woman
skollyobbies money
slack wire in acrobatics, the opposite of a tight wire
slanger big cat trainer
spangleprat workingmen slang for a performer
spec short for “spectacle”, a colorful pageant that is a featured part of the show
spiel speech given by the talker in front of a show or attraction
spieler sideshow announcer (never a “barker”)
splash extraneous movement in an animal act
spondulicks money
spread money
squeezings canned heat drunk as an intoxicant
stand any town where a circus plays
star-back seat more expensive reserved seats
stoolie stool pigeon, informant
style the “tada” pose, in lieu of a bow, that a performer strikes to solicit applause
tanbark the shredded bark of trees from which tannin has been extracted, used to cover the arena ground
tarchee money
ten-in-one freak show
three-sheet three sheets of advertising paper, measuring 42 X 84 inches. Also, a self-serving performer with an overly high opinion of himself.
three-sheeting bragging or advertising one’s improbable accomplishments or doing such overblown things as, in the legitimate theater, wearing stage makeup away from the theater.
townie regular, non-circus person
trip for biscuits an unsuccessful or fruitless trip or effort
trouper circus member
turn the tip to convince the crowd (or “tip”) outside of an attraction or sideshow to buy a ticket and come inside
twist woman
vig short for “vigorish”: an excessive rate of interest on a loan, typically one from an illegal moneylender; the percentage deducted from a gambler’s winnings by the organizers of a game
wagtashi, wagtaki money
windjammers circus musicians
with the show employed by a circus or carnival, but also denoting a broader allegiance to the circus life and those in it. Troupers may know one another as “with it and for it” even though they have never met.
work Chinese to perform extra heavy work, often for no pay
zanies clowns
zotz to kill

In the British circus tradition, circus folk employ an even more idiosyncratic private language called Parlari. It evolved from the native languages of performers from various regions and countries, notably the Roma or Gypsy people. Since Rex Koko is American-born and ill-bred, only a handful of Parlari words appear in his adventures.