Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Elephant Stories III: Lingo and Prohibition

As promised, here are a few discoveries from Water for Elephants.

Circus vernacular is a little insider jargon for those who live and work in the world of circuses. Many of these terms from the novel have a striking harshness that points to the desperate, semi-outlaw nature of traveling shows during the Depression. Prohibition did nothing to ease people's lives during those hard times, in fact the Temperance Laws only aggravated social ills.

Flying Squadron- The workers who arrive earliest and set up the space for the show.Roustabouts- Unskilled laborers who do all the manual work around the circus
Rube- Local townsperson, from Reuben an old term used to describe a rustic or farmer.Hey Rube- A rallying cry when a circus worker gets into a fight with a customer. It calls the fellow circus members to come to his assistance. Eventually, these types of fights began to be called Hey Rubes.

Dukey- The dining area for employees of a circus was jokingly called "Hotel Du Quai" after a fancy place near the Louvre in Paris. Later shortened to dukey.Jump- Distance that must be traveled between shows. "I almost missed the next jump."

Bull- Any elephant, male or female

Grouch bag- A small drawstring bag worn around the neck in which travelers kept money and valuables close to the body so they couldn't get stolen. (By the way, grouch comes from word grudge)

First of May- A worker or performer in his or her first season with the circus, as in "He was a first of May." I don't know why. Anyone out there know why?

Monday man- Monday was traditionally laundry day in the towns the circus came through. A Monday man slipped out and stole clothes from local clotheslines, bringing them back for the circus people to wear.

Redlighting- When an unskilled employee outlived his usefulness or pissed off the boss, he was thrown from the speeding train. If he had seriously pissed off the boss, it might happen over a trestle. Tramps who hopped regular trains were often expelled this way.

Kinkers- While performers call themselves 'performers,' laborers call them 'kinkers.' Originally the term refered only to acrobats but later expanded to include all performers.

Cooch- Erotic dancing and prostitution, cooch show, cooch tent, comes from the word coozie which started out meaning sexy woman, then came to refer just to her private parts, and from this comes Hootchy-kootchy dance.
The events in Water for Elephants take place during Prohibition. Alcohol was illegal in the U.S. between 1920 and 1933. People still managed to drink it, of course, smuggling it from Canada, patronizing speakeasies, making their own moonshine or, if they were poor and desperate, consuming any alcoholic thing they could get their hands on, including cooking extracts, medicines, paint remover and Sterno cooking fuel.

Canned heat- refers to Sterno, a brand name for "solidified alcohol supplied in containers for use as fuel for cooking stoves, etc." (OED)

Jake- Jamaica ginger extract, sold in pharmacies as a headache remedy.

Jake paralysis/ jake leg/ jake walk/ limber leg- a neurological condition of untreatable paralysis that struck those who heavily consumed "jake" in the 1930s. In order to discourage recreational use, some makers of the medicine had added cresol to the extract, a compound which replaced some of the alcohol. In large quantities, cresol is harmful or even fatal. Read more about that here.
Etymologies from the Oxford English Dictionary.
Photos from the Circus Historical Society circushistory.org
More comprehensive lists of circus vernacular are compiled here and here.

7 comments:

Lucy said...

Fascinating! I would love to borrow that book when you are done!

Kristen said...

Very curious world that is being painted so very vividly in the book your reading. . . . It reminds me of an innocent, yet delightful, movie I saw a couple of months ago titled "Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken." It is period piece, like you enjoy, but it is rather innocent but not in that saccharine way. The characters stay true to the period and its message is meaningful (I enjoyed it). Anyhow, your talking of this book is reminding me very vividly of scenes from that movie. . . . no pressure :)

Love your way,
Kristen

Indie said...

Lucy, yes I'm nearly done with it.

Kristen, thank you for the movie recommendation!!! I haven't seen that, tho I've seen it on video store shelves. I love Depression-era film and literature. I might just go rent this tonight...

Big City Poz said...

Before I morphed into a respectable and mild-mannered English teacher, I had a number of other jobs that were, well, on the edge. One of them was working with a carnival that traveled throughout the midwest. I ran a booth where people tried to toss rings over the tops of quart bottles of soda. The prize was....the bottle of soda.

(I was also once a bartender in a seedy gay bar and a bouncer in a strip club.)

The first of May (or around then) is the official start of the carnival and circus season. Many outfits head south for the winter (especially to Florida), where the workers collect unemployment benefits. The show starts up again when the weather turns nice (and the benefits run out).

Indie said...

Joe, thank you for pinning that down! I was thinking it was something like the start of the season.

All those experiences make us who we are. Imagine how boring must be the teacher who goes straight from childhood into college then the classroom, without ever experiencing the things that give meaning to what we learn.

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