Frost’s Circus Life and Circus Celebrities
Thomas Frost, Circus Life and Circus Celebrities, London: Chatto and Windus, 1881.
Circus Slang - Its Peculiarities and Derivation - Certain Phrases used by others of the Amusing Classes - Technicalities of the Circus - The Riders and Clowns of Dickens - Sleary's Circus - Circus Men and Women in Fiction and in Real Life - Domestic Habits of Circus People - Dress and Manners - The Professional Quarter of the Metropolis.
CIRCUS men are much addicted to the use of slang, and much of their slang is peculiar to themselves. To those who are uninitiated in the mysteries of life among what may be termed the amusing classes, the greater part of their vocabulary would seem an unknown tongue; but a distinction must be made between slang words and phrases and the technical terms used in the profession, and also between the forms of expression peculiar to circus men and those which they use in common with members of the theatrical and musical professions. These distinctions being duly observed, the words and phrases which are peculiar to the ring will be found to be less numerous than might be expected from the abundance of slang with which the conversation of circus artistes seems to be garnished; though it is probable that no man, not even a circus man, could give a complete vocabulary of circus slang, which, like that of other slang-speaking classes, is constantly receiving additions, while words and phrases which have been long in use often become obsolete, and fall into disuse.
There is an impression among circus men that much of the slang peculiar to themselves is derived from the languages of Italy and Spain, and the affirmative, si, has been cited to me as an instance; but I have never heard this word used by them, and its use has probably been observed only in the case of men or women who have recently been in Italy. The few words in common use among the class which can be traced to an Italian or Spanish origin may be counted on the fingers of one hand. Bono (good) is used both as an adjective, and as an exclamation of approval or admiration. Dona (lady) is so constantly used that I have seldom heard a circus man mention a woman by any other term. The other words referred to are used in monetary transactions, which are the constant subject of slang among all classes of the community. Saulty (penny) may be derived from the Italian soldi, and duey (twopence) and tray saulty (threepence) are also of foreign origin, like the deuce and tray of card-players. Dollar is in constant use as the equivalent of five shillings, and money generally is spoken of as denarlies, which may be a corruption of the Latin denarii.
Rot is a term of contempt, used in strong and emphatic contradistinction to bono; and of late years it has been adopted by other sections of the amusing classes, and by young men of the 'fast' sort, who seem to think the use of slang a commendable distinction. Toe rags is another expression of contempt, less frequently used, and chiefly by the lower grades of circus men, and the acrobats who stroll about the country, performing at fairs and races, in the open air. These wanderers, and those who are still seen occasionally in the back streets of the metropolis, are said to 'go a-pitching;' the spot they select for their performance is their 'pitch,' and any interruption of their feats, such as an accident, or the interference of a policeman, is said to 'queer the pitch,' - in other words, to spoil it. Going round the assemblage with a hat, to collect the largesses of the on-lookers, is 'doing a nob,' and to do this at the windows of a street, sometimes done by one performer standing on the shoulders of another, is 'nobbing the glazes.' The sum collected is the 'nob.
The verb ‘to fake,' means, in the thieves' vocabulary, to steal; but circus men use it in a different sense, 'faked up' meaning 'fixed,' while 'fakements' is applied particularly to circus apparatus and properties, and generally to moveables of any kind. 'Letty' is used both as a noun and a verb, signifying 'lodging' and 'to lodge.' To abscond from a place, to evade payment of debts, or from apprenticeship, is sometimes called 'doing a bunk,' but this phrase is used by other classes also, circus men more frequently using the phrase, 'doing a Johnny Scaparey,' the last word being accented on the second syllable. The circus is always called the 'show;' I have never heard it termed the 'booth,' which is the word which Dickens puts into the mouth of Cissy Jupe, the little daughter of the clown of Sleary's circus, in Hard Times. Gymnasts call their performance a 'slang,' but I am not aware that the term is used by other circus artistes. The joke or anecdote of a clown is called 'a wheeze,' and he is said when engaged in that part of his business. to be ‘cracking a wheeze.'
Balloons, banners, and garters are merely special applications to circus uses of ordinary English terms. A balloon is a large hoop, covered with tissue paper, held up for an equestrian artiste to jump through; a banner is a bordered cloth held horizontally, to be jumped over, - what Albert Smith calls a length of stair carpet; and garters are narrow bands held in the same manner, and for the same purpose. When an equestrian fails to clear these, he is said to 'miss his tip,' which is the gravest article of Childers's impeachment of Jupe, in Dickens's interesting story of the fortunes and misfortunes of the Gradgrinds and the Bounderbys. Dickens put two or three other words into the mouth of the same member of Sleary's company which I have never heard, and which do not appear to be now in use. Jupe is said to have become 'loose in his ponging,' though still a good 'cackler;' and Bounderby is reminded sarcastically that he is on the 'tight jeff.' Childers explains that 'ponging' means tumbling, 'cackling' talking, and 'jeff' a rope.
‘Cully' is the circus man's equivalent for the mechanic's 'mate' and the soldier's 'comrade.' 'Prossing' is a delicate mode of indicating a desire for anything, as when old Ben, the drummer, in Life in a Circus, says, in response to the acrobat's exhortation to his fair companion, to make the best of things, - 'That's the philosophy to pitch with! Not but what a drop of beer helps it, you know; and I declare my throat's that dry that it's as much as I can do to blow the pipes.' 'Pro' is simply an abbreviation of ‘professional,' and is used by all the amusing classes to designate actors, singers, dancers, clowns, acrobats, &c., to whom the term seems to be restricted among them. Amongst all the amusing classes, the salary received is the 'screw,' the 'ghost walks' when it is paid, and an artiste is 'goosed,' or 'gets the goose,' when the spectators or auditors testify by sibillant sounds disapproval or dissatisfaction. As in every other avocation, there are a great many technical terms used, which are not to be confounded with slang. Such is ‘the Plymouth,' a term applied to one of the movements by which gymnasts return to a sitting position on the horizontal bar, after hanging from it by the hands in an inverted position. 'Slobber swing' is applied to a single circle upon the bar, after which a beginner, from not having given himself sufficient impetus, hangs by the hands. The ‘Hindoo punishment' is what is more often called the 'muscle grind,' a rather painful exercise upon the bar, in which the arms are turned backward to embrace the bar, and then brought forward upon the chest, in which position the performer revolves.
Having mentioned that Dickens has put some slang words into the mouths of his circus characters which I have not found in use among circus men of the present day, I cannot refrain from quoting a passage in Hard Times, and giving a circus man's brief, but emphatic, commentary upon it. Speaking of Sleary's company, the great novelist says: - 'All the fathers could dance upon rolling casks, stand upon bottles, catch knives and balls, twirl hand basins, ride upon anything, jump over everything, and stick at nothing. All the mothers could (and did) dance upon the slack wire and the tight rope, and perform rapid acts on bare-backed steeds.' The circus man's criticism of this statement, and of all the circus business introduced into the story, was summed up in the one word - 'Rot!' Sleary's people must certainly have been exceptionally clever, so much versatility being very rarely found. There are few clowns and acrobats who can ride, even in the ordinary, and not in the circus acceptation of the word; and of a score of equestriennes who can ride a pad-horse, and fly through hoops and balloons, and over banners and garters, there will not be found more than one or two who can perform rapid acts on the bare back of a horse.
So far, also, from 'all the mothers' doing all the performances mentioned by Dickens, there are more often none who do them. I call to mind at this moment a circus in which seven of the male members of the company were married, not one of whose wives ever appeared in the ring, or ever had done so.
The picture of the domestic life of the men and women performing in Sleary's circus differs as much from reality, as their versatile talents and accomplishments differ from the powers exhibited by the riders, clowns, and tumblers of real life. The company seems to be a rather strong one, and most of the men have wives and children; yet the whole of them, including the proprietor, are represented as lodging in one house, an obscure inn in an obscure part of the outskirts of the town. Such deviations from probability do not lessen the interest of the story, which I have read again and again with pleasure; but they render it of little or no value as a picture of circus life and character. Circus men, if married, and accompanied by their wives, will generally be found occupying private apartments. Riders and others who are unmarried sometimes prefer to lodge in public-houses, and often have no choice in the matter, owing to the early hours at which the inhabitants of provincial towns retire to rest, and the unwillingness of many persons to receive 'professionals' as lodgers, which applies equally to actors and vocalists. But the Pegasus's Arams must have had an unusual number of apartments for a house of its class to have accommodated all Sleary's people, with their families; and the company must have been gregarious in a very remarkable degree.
The dress, the manners, and the talk of circus men are peculiar, but in none of these particulars are they at all ' horsey,' as all Sleary's company are described, unless they are equestrians, and even these are less so than grooms and jockeys. They may be recognized by their dress alone as readily as foreigners who have just arrived in England, and who do not belong to those social classes that affect the latest Parisian fashions, and in which national distinctions have disappeared. Watch the men who enter a circus by the side-doors about eleven o'clock in the forenoon, or walk on two or three successive mornings, between ten and twelve, from Westminster Bridge to Waterloo Road, and you may recognize the acrobats and rope-dancers of the circuses and music-halls by their dress; you may meet one wearing a sealskin coat, unbuttoned, and displaying beneath a crimson velvet vest, crossed by a heavy gold chain. He is a 'tip-topper,' of course; one of those who used to get their fifty or sixty pounds a week at the Alhambra, or who has had nuggets thrown to him at San Francisco and Melbourne. Perhaps the next you will meet will be a man of lower grade, wearing a brown coat, with velvet collar, over a sealskin vest, with a brassy-looking chain festooned across it. Another wears a drab over-coat, with broad collar and cuffs of Astrakhan lamb-skin; an Alpine hat, with a tail-feather of a peacock stuck in the band, is worn jauntily on his head; a pin, headed with a gilt horse-shoe or horse's head or hoof, adorns his fancy neck-tie; and an Alaska diamond glistens on the fourth finger of an ungloved hand. Further on you meet a man whose form is enveloped in a capacious blue cloak, and whose head is surmounted by the tallest felt hat, with the broadest brim, you have ever seen. But you are not done with these strange people yet. You have nearly reached the end of York Road when there issues from the office of Roberts or Maynard, the equestrian and musical agents, a man wearing a low-crowned hat and a grey coat, braided with black; or, it may be, a black velvet coat, buttoned across his chest, whatever the weather may be, and ornamented with a gold chain festooned from the breast-pocket to one of the button-holes.
This is the professional quarter of the metropolis. At least three-fourths of what I have termed the amusing classes, whether connected with circuses, theatres, public gardens, or music-halls, - actors, singers, dancers, equestrians, clowns, gymnasts, acrobats, jugglers, posturers, - may be found, in the day-time at least, within the area bounded by a line drawn from Waterloo Bridge to the Victoria Theatre, and thence along Gibson Street and Oakley Street, down Kennington Road as far as the Cross, and thence to Vauxhall Bridge. Towards the edges of this area they are more sparsely scattered than nearer the bridges. They are well sprinkled along York Road, and in some of the streets between the Albert Embankment and Kennington Lane they constitute a considerable proportion of the population. You may enter Barnard's tavern, opposite Astley's, or the Pheasant, in the rear of the theatre, and find circus and music-hall artistes making two to one of the men before the bar.
They are, as a class, a light-hearted set, not remarkable for providence, but bearing the vicissitudes of fortune to which they are so liable with tolerable equanimity, showing a laudable desire to alleviate each other's ills to the utmost extent of their power, and regarding leniently each other's failings, without exhibiting a greater tendency to vice than any other class. There is not much education among them, as I have before indicated, and they are not much addicted to literature of any kind. This seems to arise, not from any deficiency of natural aptitude for learning, but from their wandering lives and the early age at which they begin to practise the feats by which they are to be enabled to live. The training of a circus rider, a gymnast, or an acrobat begins as soon as he or she can walk. From that time they practise every day, and they are often introduced in the ring, or on the platform of a music-hall, at an age at which other children have not left the nursery. They wander over the United Kingdom - Europe - the world. The lads whom you see tumbling in one of the quiet streets between the Strand and the Victoria Embankment one day, may be seen doing the same performance a week or two afterwards on the sands at Ramsgate, the downs at Epsom, or the heath at Newmarket. The equestrian or the gymnast who amazes you at the Amphitheatre may be seen the following season at the Hippodrome or the Circo Price. They may be met passing from one continent to another, from one hemisphere to another, sometimes gorgeously attired, sometimes out at elbows, but always light-hearted and gay, excepting perhaps the clowns, who always seem, out of the ring, the gravest and most taciturn of the race. I do not know how a moral phenomenon of such strangeness is to be accounted for; perhaps all their hilarity evaporates in the saw-dust, or on the boards; but I am afraid that their humour is very often forced, their jests borrowed from the latest collection of facetioe, their merry, interludes with the ring-master rehearsed before-hand.
They are., as a rule, long-lived, and seem never to become superannuated. Stickney died at forty, I believe; but Astley was seventy-two when he departed this life, Pablo Fauque seventy-five, Madame Saqui eighty, and Saunders ninety-two. Constant practice enables even gymnasts and acrobats to continue their performances when they are far down the decline of life; and I have seen middle-aged, and even grey-headed men, who had been ' pitching' or 'tenting' all their lives, and could still throw a forward somersault, or form the base of an acrobatic pyramid. Both men and women generally marry young, but the latter go on riding or rope-dancing until they are superseded by younger ones; and their husbands ride, vault, tumble, or juggle, until their -
- 'little life
Is rounded with a sleep.'
The human mind craves amusement in every phase of society, and in none more than in that which is exemplified in the large towns of Europe and the United States, where, and especially among the commercial and industrial classes, the brain is in activity, the nerves in a state of tension, from morn till eve. Released from business or labour for the day, the nervous system requires relaxation; and if its demands are not attended to, the strain of the day cannot long be sustained. The entertaining classes are, therefore, a necessary element of present society; and, in now taking leave of them, I cannot too strongly urge upon all who may read these pages the appeal which the inimitable Dickens has put into the mouth of Sleary: 'People mutht be amuthed. They can't be alwayth a-learning, nor they can't be alwayth a-working; they an't made for it. You mutht have uth. Do the withe thing and the kind thing too, and make the betht of uth; not the wutht.' Let us indeed make the best of our entertainers; for we owe them much.
No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or means
without written permission of the author and the Circus Historical Society, Inc.
Last modified November 2005.