Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

 

Once upon a time, when the sky was made of canvas and the ground was made of sawdust, elephants in tutus danced on their toes and cradled showgirls in their trunks.

Once upon a time, fountains of red hair spouted from high white foreheads, and saggy, baggy clowns spilled into our laughter.

Once upon a time, when we were young and full of wonder, acrobats in spangled tights flew through the air like birds, and plumed horses pranced to the music of steam calliopes.

Once upon a time, there was magic in our land, and that magic was the circus.

Tomorrow, after 146 years of bedazzling Americans from California to the New York island, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will fold its tents. Pulled by dwindling attendance and mounting operating costs, the final curtain will come down on the Greatest Show on Earth.

“Hey, First-of-May! Tell the butcher in the back yard to stay away from the bulls, humps, stripes, and painted ponies. We have some cherry pie for him before doors and spec.” Sound like doubletalk? Actually, it’s circus talk — or, more technically, circus argot, argot being a specialized vocabulary used by a particular group for mutual bonding and private communication.

Communities are most likely to develop a colorful argot when they have limited contact with the world outside of their group. The circus community is a perfect example of the almost monastic self-containment in which argot flourishes. Big top people travel in very close quarters, and because they usually go into a town, set up, do a show, tear down and leave, they have little contact with the locals. They socialize with each other, they intermarry and their children acquire the argot from the time they start to talk.

 First-of-May designates anyone who is brand-new to circus work. That’s because circuses used to start their tours around the first day in May. A candy butcher is a concessionaire who sells cotton candy (floss) and other food, along with drinks and souvenirs, to the audience during the show. The backyard is the place just behind the circus entrance where performers wait to do their acts. A bull is a circus elephant, even though most of them are female. Among other circus beasts, humps, stripes and painted ponies are, respectively, camels, tigers and zebras. Cherry pie is extra work, probably from chairy pie, the setting up of extra chairs around the arena. Doors! is the cry that tells circus folk that the audience is coming in to take their seats. Spec is short for spectacle, the resplendent parade of all the performers.

Trust me: This topic ain’t no dog and pony show — the designation for a small circus with just a few acts, also known as a mud show.

What we call the toilet circus folk call the donniker, the hot dog or grill concession trailer where the circus can snag a snack is a grease joint and a circus performer is a kinker. The townspeople are towners or rubes. In the old days, when large groups of towners who believed (sometimes accurately) that they had been fleeced by dishonest circus people, they would come back in a mob to seek retribution. The cry Hey rube! went out, and everyone knew that the fight was on.

When a circus came to town, the sheriff would often remove the nut from a wheel of the main wagon. Because in bygone days these nuts were elaborately and individually crafted, they were well-nigh impossible to replace. Thus, the circus couldn’t leave town until the costs of land, utilities, rental, easements and security were paid. It’s but a short metaphorical leap to the modern meaning of making the nut, “meeting one’s expenses.”

A full house is called a straw house from the days when straw would be laid down in front of the seats to accommodate more people than the seats could hold. Distances between engagements were called jumps. Thus, an old circus toast rings out: “May your lots be grassy, your jumps short and your houses straw.”

Nothing now to mark the spot
But a littered vacant lot.
Sawdust in a heap, and where
The center ring stood, grass worn bare.
 
But remain the sounds and sights —
The artists, music, beasts and lights.
May the spangled memories soar
In our hearts forevermore.