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Australian Circus VERNACULAR

By Mark St Leon

The pioneering, egalitarian nature of Australian society was already taking shape when circus people began to arrive from England and elsewhere in the 1840s and 1850s. Capital and labour, rather than education, breeding and inherited wealth, were the determining factors in defining one’s soi-disant ‘class’ in the colonies.

Most of Australia's early circus people were drawn from the provincial circuses, outdoor equestrian shows, fairgrounds, music halls, salons and 'penny gaffs' of the British Isles. Some came from families politely described as 'English gypsies', meaning travelling tinkers and hawkers rather than ethnic Gypsies, people had some affinity with itinerant county fairground folk. Some arrived in chains, some of their own free will. Some had education and some had little or none.

They brought with them their performance repertoires and their daily routines - and the vernacular to which they were accustomed. This vernacular fell between the shadowy extremes represented by two of Australia's earliest and best known circus proprietors, James Ashton and Henry Burton. Ashton was 'a showman of a distinct type and bygone period', his 'brigandish' style of speech containing 'a little Romany articulation and etymology a la St Giles'. On the other hand, Henry Burton, the son of a Lincolnshire gentleman, possessed an 'exquisite suavity and pompousness'.

In 1875, Thomas Frost gave several examples of the slang then employed among England’s ‘amusing classes’, several of which resurfaced in an Australian circus context

Pro is simply an abbreviation of 'professional', and is used by all the amusing classes to designate actors, singers, dancers, clowns, acrobats & c ... Amongst all the amusing classes, the salary received is the screw, [and] the ghost walks when it is paid.

The English term for a somersault, a flip-flap, was customary in Australian circus speech. The American circus slang for a horse, a resin-back, was not unknown in Australian circus speech. On the other hand, there appear to have been a number of words and terms used by the local circus profession which may not have received a currency beyond Australia, indeed beyond the local profession itself.

The term screw was used in the Australian setting by 1893, while the terms pro and the ghost walks were used in circus speech in the 1930s, and probably earlier and later.

Common English circus words such as gaffer (showman), donna (lady), and tober (circus ground) were probably introduced into Australian circus at an early stage but today there are no traces of them, either in everyday circus speech or in oral records. The terms spieler (a card sharp or swindler) and buttoner (a trickster's accomplice who enticed dupes from the audience) were part of the Australian showman's usage by the 1870s and 1880s respectively, if not earlier, although both have since passed from currency.

Today, only a few examples of the English circus vocabulary survive in Australian circus usage [TABLE I]. These terms remained a part of the Australian circus vocabulary either because they were preferred over their American equivalents by the local circus community, or simply because such terms had become a part of the international vocabulary of the circus.

TABLE I

Nevertheless, Australia’s circus people acquired a number of other words and expressions that appear to have English fairground origins. These words and expressions fall into two arbitrary, but convenient, sub-groups and appear to have defied previous documentation in most cases, at least in this country. The first group [TABLE II] contains specimens which may have some resemblance to the Romany speech of the English fairground.

TABLE II

Many of the terms listed in TABLE II enabled showpeople to discretely convey information to one another without alarming or offending their patrons. Although these terms have certainly been in use during the post-WWII period, it is not known how long prior to this they were in currency. On the other hand, the second group [TABLE III] is comprised of specimens of rhyming slang reflective of the London cocknies.

TABLE III

A large number of words and terms are used, or have been used, by the local circus community which may not have received a currency beyond Australia, indeed beyond the local circus community itself. [TABLE IV] In most instances, I can find no listing, neither in recognised dictionaries of Australian colloquial useage nor in published lists of current American and English circus language.

TABLE IV

With the exception of spruiker and warb, none of the above terms appear in Wilkes' Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms, suggesting that settled society was largely quarantined from whatever language developments were taking place within the circus community.

Words and expressions were borrowed by the circus and show people (and perhaps even lent to) other Australian occupational groups [TABLE V]. In keeping with the itinerant, provincial nature of the travelling circus, it is not surprising that these words and expressions emanated mostly from Australia's rural and stockdroving communities.

TABLE V

The local circus industry became an increasingly multicultural/multinational one. There were Aboriginal bareback riders, German musicians, Japanese acrobats, Indian jugglers, Spanish riders and Mexican gymnasts and so on. Then there were all manner of supernumaries from English business managers to Maori grooms and Aboriginal tenthands:

On the top of these baggage wagons, damp and steaming tentmen snatched an uneasy term of sleep, with their legs dangling over the side. The drivers, from a stalwart African Negro to a Queensland Aboriginal boy, looked as hard as nails and their fertility in the use of expletives surpassed that of the most accomplished stage manager. It seemed to be their ordinary way of speech.

What words and terms, if any, the abovementioned ethnic/national groups introduced into the Australian circus argot has not been established. However, one national group did have a major impact on the development of Australian circus language. American circuses, wild west shows and carnivals came as early as 1851 and as late as 1920, while the years 1873-1892 saw several visits from the largest circuses that America had to offer. The size and splendour of the American companies easily eclipsed their Australian contemporaries. A number of American circus terms entered into the local argot.

TABLE VI

Prosperity, higher general standards of education, the availability of international travel and media accessibility and globalisation have all acted in recent years to retard the evolution of a uniquely Australian English. As for the Australian circus, most circus people of the current era can point to a complete secondary education. All of these factors are inevitably slowing down and re-defining the evolution of a distinctive Australian circus speech.

Mark St Leon, 1990

Note - Much of the above material appeared in the author’s article published in the journal English Today (Cambridge University Press). See details below.

Further Reading

Frost, T. (1975), Circus Life and Circus Celebrities, London: Tinsley Brothers, 1875. [especially Ch 18]
Hughes, J. (1989), Australian Words & Their Origins, Melbourne, Oxford University Press.
Prichard, K.S. (1988), Haxby's Circus, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1988. [Especially pp 30-31].

St Leon, M. (1984), Australian Circus Reminscences, Sydney: The author.
St Leon, M. (1990), The Silver Road, The Life of Mervyn King, Circus Man, Springwood, NSW: Butterfly Books.
St Leon, M. (1994), Australian circus language: A report on the nature, origin and circumstances of Aussie argot under the big top, in English Today. Vol 10 No 1. Pp 43 - 49.
St Leon, M. (1999), Yankee circus to the fabled land: The Australian-American circus connection. Journal of Popular Culture. Vol 33 No 1. Pp 77-89.

St Leon, M. (2000), Educational practise in Australian circus, 1847-1930, in International Journal of Educational Research. Vol 33 No 3. Pp 285-295.