A few useful terms in case you visit a sideshow or carnival!
Sideshow – Essentially, any show that plays the midway, though the now more common application is to the freak shows or ten-in one shows. Technically, however, even a menagerie on the midway of a circus is a sideshow.
Dime Museum – A collection of specimens, exotic objects and live acts and performances, usually set up in its own building though just as often set up in an old store front. They were most popular primarily in the 19th and early 20th Century. The present day road-side museums are their descendants.
10 in 1 – A carnival midway show with ten attractions inside. It is usually an “illusion” show or some other “string show.” Can be either a “pit” or a “platform” show. Most of them worked on ground level though.
Single O – A show consisting of a single attraction.
Talker – Never “barker.” The man who makes the “outside openings” and “talks” in front of an attraction. If he talks inside the attraction, he is a “lecturer.”
“Hey Rube” – In the ‘old days,’ a call for help when a carny encountered more trouble with outsiders than he can handle alone. These days, ‘hey rube’ still works, but it’s more likely to be “It’s a clem!” or “wrang!” or simply “fight!”
Anatomical Wonder- A sideshow performer, usually perceived by the public as a human oddity, but more a working act. The performer would do stunts such as ‘the man without a stomach’ (pulling the gut in until the backbone shows), pulling themselves through a coat hanger or tennis racket, and other Indian Rubber Man stunts.
Carny – Someone who works in a carnival. The term is also applied to the carnival itself. It’s a term used by some in the business and disliked by others.
Geek – An unskilled performer whose performance consists of shocking, repulsive and repugnant acts. This “lowest of the low” member of the carny trade would commonly bite the head off a living chicken, or sit in a bed of snakes. Some historians distinguish between “geeks” who pretend to be wild men, and “glomming geeks” whose act includes eating disgusting things.
Freak – A human oddity on exhibition in a museum or in a circus or carnival side show. Early day circuses also displayed some featured freaks in their menageries.
Midway – In its broadest sense, the location where all the concessions, rides and shows are located in a circus, fair or carnival. Of course, a carnival is basically nothing but midway; in a circus, the midway is just that: the midway between the ‘front door’ to the circus lot itself and the ‘big top’ where the circus performers do their acts; and in a fair, the midway will probably be a combination of the carnival and the ‘independent midway,’ amusements booked in separate from the carnival by the fair committee itself.
Gaff – In the broadest sense, anything controlled or ‘faked’. A gaffed game, for example, would be one where it would be nearly impossible for the patron to win unless the operator let him. In the case of freak animals (and human oddities as well on occasion), for example, a gaff wouldn’t be a genuine freak of nature, regardless how convincing it looked, but a specimen manufactured to look freakish.
Blowoff – Crowds leaving a big top after a performance. Extra pay, extra added attractions in back end of both circus and carnival side shows were also called blowoffs. Also blow off, blow-off or the blow.
Bally / Ballyhoo – A free show given outside a side show to attract a crowd (a ‘tip’) of potential patrons. Word came into being at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The fakirs, gun spinners and dancing girls from the Middle East spoke no English, only Arabic. The interpreters used the expression “Dehalla Hoon” to call performers outside to the show fronts. The Western ears of the talkers translated it as ‘ballyhoo’ and so used it when the interpreters were away for lunch.
Human Blockhead – The name given by the anatomical wonder Melvin Burkhart to the independent act he created where the performer pushes, hammers, drills, etc. objects ‘into the middle of my head,’ that is, up the nose. Performers use nails-called spikes-screwdrivers, icepicks, etc. The act originated in the much older fakir stunt of pushing a spike up the nose as part of a larger show of “torture” acts.
Fakir – From the Indian, as in “Indian Fakir,” a street performer who swallowed swords, ate fire, did the blockhead act, lay on a bed of nails, walked on fire, etc. Not surprisingly, the term also shows up in some texts used interchangeably with “con man.”
Turn the Tip – The would be patrons in front of a bally platform who have been convinced that the “talker” is truthful and his attraction must be seen are “turned” when they crowd up to the ticket boxes and purchase tickets.
With it – (as in, “with it and for it”) An expression by which one trouper may know another even though they have never met before. Warning: Do not attempt to use this word unless you have been properly instructed in the manner by which to deliver it.
Pickled Punk – A carnival term for human fetuses. Two-headed human babies, joined together twins, etc., etc. (Also normal specimens from one to eight months). Not India rubber as many believed, these specimens were repulsive to some, but highly educational for millions of others.
Shill – One who pretends to play a game, or to buy a ticket to an attraction, in order to entice others to join or follow him. Without a good “shill,” and entire “tip” may stay perfectly still after an “opening.” All with the cash in their hands, and not one of them will “break” for the ticket boxes, unless some brave soul leads the way. “Shills” fill the need for brave souls.
Freak Show – A show where human oddities and freakish working acts performed. The term applies to both circus and carnival. In practice, these shows were often ten-in-one shows and usually had a high percentage of working acts like sword swallowers and fire eaters or ‘made freaks’ like tattooed people.
Thank you to James Taylor from www.shockedandamazed.com for Lingo definitions.