Carny or Carnie is a slang term for a carnival (funfair) employee, as well as the language they employ. A carny is anyone who runs a "joint" (booth), "grab joint" (food stand), game, or ride at a carnival.
The word carny
is thought to have become popularized around 1931 in North America
, when it was first colloquially used to describe "one who works at a carnival." The word carnival
, originally meaning a "time of merrymaking before Lent
," came into use circa 1549, and may be derived from the Italian carnevale
for Shrove Tuesday
. The older Milanese Italian forms include carnevale
and the Old Pisan carnelevare
which interpreted means "to remove meat," is literally translated "raising flesh," from the Latin caro
, meaning "flesh" and levare
, meaning to "lighten, raise". Folk etymology
from the Middle Latin
is carne vale
, interpreted as "flesh farewell."
Note: Though these terms are traditionally part of carnival jargon, it is an ever-changing form of communication, and in large part designed to be impossible to understand by an outsider. Thus, as words are assimilated into the culture at large, they lose their function and are replaced by other more obscure or insular terms. Most carnies no longer talk this way. However, many owners/operators and "old-timers" still use some of the classic terms. Jargon that refers to money or drugs is still used frequently.
- Agent - Operator of a joint.
- Alibi - A technique used where the player has apparently won the game, but is denied a prize when the jointee invents a further, unforeseeable, condition of the game. For example, a player may be disqualified on the grounds of having leaned over a previously undisclosed "foul line."
- Bally - A free performance intended to attract both tips and visitors to the nearby sideshow.
- Blow - Cocaine
- Blow Off - Rush of customers out of an exhibition.
- Bone yard - Place at which employees stay when not working. (called the bone yard because employees work hard all day long until they're nothing but bones)
- Burn the lot - To cheat players with little or no attempt to conceal the subterfuge, in the carny's expectation that the same town will not be visited again.
- Butcher - A carnie that will take every penny from a mark by confusing them and then forcing them to pay
- Call - The act of yelling out slogans and interacting with passers-by to attract business.
- Circus "jump" - Term used to describe the need to tear down, drive, set up and work in another town, the very next day.
- Donniker - Bathroom
- Flat - A game that is rigged so that you cannot win. Illegal in most states.
- Flash - To make your joint look ready for business. To make it look "flashy"
- Forty Miler - A greenie who is willing to travel, but only short distances from their home base. Also used to describe anyone or anything that is perceived to be fake or phony.
- Gaff - To rig a game so as to make it unwinnable
- Green Help - Employees hired at a new location that are only temporary (a.k.a. greenies).
- Hammer-Squash - Used to describe an individual as dumb or stupid (used interchangeably with Larry when used to describe a person).
- Hey, Rube! - An exclamation used to summon help by a carny in trouble, either from police or disgruntled players. The term was used as the title of a sports column written by Hunter Thompson for ESPN.com in his later years.
- Ikey Heyman - A wheel of fortune that can be secretly braked by the carny
- -iz or -erza - Inserted between the syllables of words to serve as a cipher or cryptolect.
- Key To The Midway - An object a carnival worker will ask a younger customer (or new initiate) for when asked for a free game or prize. The idea is that the 'mooch' will go onto the next game and ask for a "Key To The Midway", only to find out that this new carny has one, but can only give it up for some other far fetched item. Examples of such items include: A cordless extension cord, a solar-powered flash light, an underwater lighter, tack glue, a left-handed screwdriver, light bulb grease, purple fuzzy tape, glass hammer etc. The idea is to have fun at the customer's naivety. It's said that the Ferris wheel has been known to be called the key to the midway, as no proper midway should be without one. Others call the Jenny the key, as it's traditionally the first thing encountered when entering the midway. The Ferris wheel is sometimes called the "calling card", a title which can be applied to any high ride which is visible from long distances.
- The Kitty - Budgeted amount of finance, regulated by the management of a carnival for purchasing food and supplies for its workers. ("We wanted a new tent, but there's no more scratch in the kitty.")
- Larry - Defective
- Loc(ation) - Location of a joint or ride as determined by the carnival manager. Usually laid out before set-up.
- Lot - The Lot is the carnival midway area where the rides & "joints" are set up
- Lot Lizard - Describes a carny (usually female) who has multiple sexual partners (also carnys) Or one who tends to "sleep-around" or cheat with other carnies on the lot.
- Mark - A target for swindling, especially one whose gullibility has been demonstrated. Derived from the covert use of chalk to mark the backs of especially ripe targets. The term has entered the popular lexicon, usually as "easy mark."
- Midway - Center strip of the carnival where the games or rides are located.
- ace ($1)
- fin ($5)
- sawbuck/saw ($10)
- double ($20)
- half-yard ($50)
- yard or c-note ($100)
- large or K ($1000)
- Mooch - An individual who asks for a free game or prize. It is also used to describe someone who watches others play, but does not play themselves or asks a lot of questions with no intention of playing the game. Sometimes used as an insult between carnies to connote cheapness.
- New - An insult used by carnies, against carnies (newbie). Used in instances where a carnival worker should know better, with the insulter asking "What are you, new?"
- The Nut - The sum total (in cash) of a performance, or group of performances. The nut (or kernel) is also sometimes used to refer to the basic operating expense of the joint (including the "patch"). To "make your nut" is to break even, anything beyond that is your profit (or tip).
- Oats - Stolen money from a concession.
- Patch money - Money used to induce police officers to turn a blind eye. Also known as juice or ice.
- Plush - Stuffed animals to be given away as prizes
- Poke - The Mark's wallet is known as their Poke. When a carnie tries to see how much is in a marks wallet they "Peek their poke"
- Possum belly (sometimes possum gut) compartment under a truck or trailer
- Possum belly queen or PBQ - A girl who would have sex in a possum belly.
- Ride jock (or jockey) - Someone who operates the carnival rides (vs. jointee).
- Rousty or Roustabout - A temporary or full-time laborer who helps pitch concessions and assemble rides. In the 1930s, American roustabouts would work for a meal and perhaps a tent to share with other workers.
- Scratch - The revenue from a concession, or money in general.
- Score - Any scratch won by any means, fair or foul.
- Sharpie - The opposite of a mark: an experienced player who is wise to traditional carny scams and is skilled at the games themselves.
- Slough - Tear down your "joint". Get it ready for the road.
- Slum - Stuff that makes you want to kill the person selling it to you. small cheap "stock"
- Speak the language - Used as a test to see if someone is really "with it". Many carnies "qualify" outsiders by using the jargon. A string of jargon or carny-talk is spoken to determine if the other person understands. A person who fails the test is said to "not speak the language" indicating "newness". A newbie who is good or looks promising might be said to not speak the language YET, which is more complimentary.
- Spinning / flying Jenny or Jinny - Carnie slang for merry-go-round.
- Spring - Open the carnival.
- Stick Joint - Homemade wooden or metal booth.
- Stock- Game prizes
- Straight - A game that is played by the rules
- Sugar Shack - A concession or food-stand that sells cotton candy and other sugary treats.
- Store - Can mean any joint, but is usually used to refer to a "straight store" where there's a winner every time. The store is basically selling stock, usually slum, for a handsome profit.
- Tip - Tip generally has two meanings, depending on who you're talking to and where. Old-timers usually mean the crowd that gathers around a caller or mike-man to hear the spiel before the start of the next show, or the crowd that hangs around a joint, watching others play. A more general meaning is any scratch the agent wins from his game as in "I just won a real nice tip from that last mark".
- Two-Way Joint - A game that can be quickly converted from a fixed, unwinnable game into a temporarily honest one when police officers come by.
- With it - A carny, to identify one another, as in "I'm with it", or "Are you with it"? (With the show).
Usage in popular culture
- Freaks is a cult classic 1932 movie directed by Tod Browning starring actual sideshow carnies. The movie is about the sideshow acts seeking revenge on a woman who betrays them.
- In Joe Dirt, the 2001 redneck comedy starring David Spade, the title character works as a "rideboy" for part of the film.
- Carny is a 1980 movie directed by Robert Kaylor and starring Gary Busey, Jodie Foster, Robbie Robertson, and Meg Foster. The film has become a cult favorite.
- Carnies is a 2007 movie directed by Brian Corder and starring Chris Staviski, Doug Jones, Reggie Bannister, and Lee Perkins.
- Much of the fiction of pulp writer Fredric Brown features carnies and touches on carnival life, in particular the Ed and Am Hunter mysteries, beginning with The Fabulous Clipjoint in 1947.
- Geek Love is a novel by Katherine Dunn that mixes surrealism and horror.
- Nightmare Alley is a 1947 movie starring Tyrone Power and directed by Edmund Goulding, adapted from the novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham, which chronicles the rise and fall of a carny con man.
- Gun Crazy, a 1949 movie directed by Joseph H. Lewis, stars Peggy Cummins as Annie Laurie Starr, a trick-shot artist in a carnival.
- In Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, the protagonist Michael spends some time living with carnies.
- In Theodore Sturgeon's, The Dreaming Jewels, the hero flees with carnies to escape a brutal father. The head carny collects unusual people because he has discovered strange jewels that create people as works of art. Sturgeon himself worked as a carny for a time.
- Tattoo of a Naked Lady is a novel by ex-carny Randy Everhard that depicts the freak show of American sexuality.
- In the 1988 movie Two Moon Junction, Richard Tyson plays a carny who falls in love with a rich, southern socialite (Sherilyn Fenn)
- In the 2003 Tim Burton film Big Fish, Edward Bloom (Ewan McGregor) works for a traveling carnival for a period of time.
- An episode of the animated series Fairly Oddparents depicts Timmy Turner going to a carnival and joining with the Carnies there. He eventually becomes too good, leading the Carnies to try to get rid of him "Carny-style!". Later, it is revealed that they are all fairies in disguise (except for the crocodile Carny).
- The HBO dramatic television series Carnivàle is a supernatural period drama set in the United States during the Great Depression, telling the story of a traveling carnival in the Dust Bowl with an overarching story about the battle between good and evil as well as the struggle between free will and destiny.
- The Simpsons episode: "Bart Carny". In the episode, Bart Simpson and Homer Simpson are forced to work as carnies after Bart destroys Hitler's car. After failing to bribe Police Chief Clancy Wiggum, the ring toss game that they are fraudulently running is shut down. Throughout the episode, various carny jargon is used.
- In Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Austin Powers tells Basil Exposition that he is afraid of only two things – nuclear war and "Carnies. Circus Folk. Nomads, you know. Smell like cabbage. Small hands."