Vaudeville Slang

Here’s a great list of vaudeville slang I found. I love a peek into the vocabulary of any specific art form. A lot of these terms are in common usage now, but some are just a great look into the life of a working performer.

Here are a few:

– Hanging around the theatre making it known that you are a performer in order to try and impress others. Grandstanding. Named after the 44″ x 84″ posters that were used in the lobby of the Vaudeville theatre to promote the show

Playing to the haircuts
– Last on the bill. In other words, playing to the backs of the audience as they left the theatre.

The Gerry Society
– The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Named for founder Elbridge T. Gerry. Originally founded to prevent the exploitation of child labour, the society was a thorn in the side of vaudevillians. The society declared performers must be over 16 to work in vaudeville. Buster Keaton, Fred Astaire, Rose Marie and Milton Berle were only a few of the child performers who ran into trouble with the Gerry Society.

Also, I had hear the term “working blue” before, but I never knew where it came from…

Blue – Crude jokes or other material using graphic sexual or toilet references or profanity. The term comes from the days when Keith-Albee insisted that performers stick to strict standards of propriety and would send blue envelopes with cuts to performers. You obeyed them or quit. And if you quit, you got a black mark against your name in the head office and you didn’t work on the circuit anymore.

Take the time to learn the slang used by people in the same artistic field you want to be in. It makes it easier to talk to other people interested in the same thing and helps you be taken seriously.

Break writer’s block with translation

In college I had a professor who told us one of his favorite ways to get past writer’s block was to translate a poem into English from a language you don’t know. In fact, to do this correctly, you should choose a language you know nothing about. Most people recognize too many Spanish and French words for this to work well.

Instead of looking for the meanings of the words, treat the poem like an object. Look to the shape of the poem and the length of the lines. If you can sound out words, use the sound to help you. If it character writing, look to the shapes and guess the meaning. Look for patterns in the writing and repetition.

Treat it as a real translation. The first time through you should get a rough approximation of the poem. Then, once you have a feel for your “translation,” smooth the language and amplify the meaning. Choose appropriate vocabulary. Read it to yourself.

Once you’re done, you’ll have a completely original work. The professor said that he had several published poems that were actually “translations” from great poets. Don’t read any actual translations until you’re completely finished, but do read a translation just in case you are too close.

I’m not a nerd, he’s a nerd: slang for nerd status

I’ve been reading Talk The Talk: The Slang of 65 American Subcultures, which anyone interested in language should own. It’s a glossary, divided by group, of the inside talk used by people who participate in certain activities. There’s a lot of revealing information in the book. In particular, I’m interested in the use of slang to define the status within groups that are looked down upon.

Take a look at the historical reenactor section. Unlike the stamp collectors, they have words dividing themselves up into people who are too serious, just the right amount of serious or not serious enough. In their eyes it’s the people who are too serious that people outside the group are making fun of and rightly so. The book lists three terms for those people “button pissers”, “thread counters” and “soap eaters”.

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