One type of attraction that was once popular and has in recent times become a dying breed facing extinction is the carnival. For many this word will inspire thoughts of flashy rides, cotton candy and popcorn, colorful costumes, clowns, carnival games, and various side shows, but beyond this there is a rather colorful history and some intriguing oddities surrounding these festive gatherings. Among these is a language that took root among the workers at these places, which is both a fascinating look at linguistics tied to a culture and a tragic study in what happens when that culture fades.
Carnivals in their original incarnation derived from ancient pagan festivals, and in the 18th century became popular among Italian Catholics, who used it as a way to let off steam and have some fun before they began their Lenten season, which would restrict their diet to forbid meat for 40 days and put the brakes on carefree jovial good times. Indeed, the word “carnival” itself comes from the word carnelevare, meaning “take the meat away,” and these upbeat gatherings were meant to be a way to basically take the edge off by holding raucous dances and parades in colorful outfits. The tradition would spread to the French, Spanish, and eventually the Caribbean, before finding its way to the United States in the mid-1800s in the form of fairs, which kept some elements of the traditional carnivals and added some extra flair to the proceedings.
After the massive Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, with its enchanting midway full of mechanical rides, games, attractions, and food concession stands the likes of which few had ever witnessed before, traveling carnivals began to become all the rage, and provided entertainment to areas where there was traditionally not much else to do. With their games of chance, prizes, food, fun rides, and numerous freak shows and sideshow attractions these carnivals gave people a taste of that flavor from the World Fair, and at the time it was a major event when a carnival came to town. The carnival also provided a family and work for various misfits, freaks, vagrants, drifters, and people who had odd or amazing talents, skills, or deformities that they could not normally make much use of or make money off of. These people became known as “carnies,” and they developed a sort of close-knit culture and code of conduct all of their own. Indeed, they even developed their own language for speaking to each other.
Called “Carny” or also spelled “Carnie” and sometimes known as “Ciazarn,” it was developed among the carnies for the purpose of obfuscating their communications and making their dealings unintelligible to nosy outsiders, namely customers. This was not only useful for instilling a sense of belonging, respect, and solidarity amongst the carnies during their life on the road and allowing them to talk about carnival affairs without being eavesdropped on, but it also had the useful function of allowing them to discuss ways to dupe marks, that is targeted customers, who were playing rigged games of “chance,” or otherwise hustle them and cheat them out of their money without them having a clue as to what was going on. This clandestine form of communication allowed the carnies to go about their business and shadier dealings right out in the open without fear of discovery or repercussions from the droves of people coming through. To be able to speak it fluently was also a sort of badge of honor, because those who were proficient in it were considered to be seasoned carnies with much wisdom of their ways, and a good speaker commanded instant respect from others in their profession.
The language itself varied from carnival to carnival, but in most cases Carny is more of a “cant” or “argot” than a real language from a linguistic point of view. A cant is basically a kind of secret language, wherein words will be swapped out for different words or obscure phrases, syllables will be changed, misplaced, inserted, or mixed up, word order jumbled, slang created, and so on. In the case of Carny, it works by inserting extra syllables into words in order to make them impossible to understand by those not in the know. In a way it is similar to the concept of “Pig Latin,” and with most versions of Carnie this is achieved by adding an “eaz” before the first vowel of every syllable in a word. By these rules “is” would become “eaz-is,” “mark” would be “meazark,” Clown” becomes “cleazown,”and so on. There are other variations, such as adding an “iz,” “earz,” or some other syllable rather than “eaz,” but the end result is the same. Speak this rapidly and fluently enough and add in some specialized slang to the mix and you have a way of talking that is quite unintelligible to the uninitiated, and even carnies from other groups with their own versions would not be able to understand each other.
Although speaking Carny was long considered a rite of passage for any self-respecting carnie, recent years have seen its use decline considerably. This is likely due to a variety of factors, not the least of which is that the number of actual carnivals out there has steadily decreased in this day and age of new technology and all manner of entertainment options, often quite literally at our fingertips. People just don’t go to the carnival anymore, and even those who are still carnies in the modern era are using the language less and less. There is also the fact that with the popularization and familiarization of Carny and the dissection of how to speak it available to the masses through mass media, as well as its use in popular culture and by some hip-hop stars, it got to the point where it was not as impossible to understand as it once had been. People were on to it, and so it lost its purpose and began to fade from usage, dissolving into obsolescence.
These days it is hard to find anyone at an actual carnival who speaks it anymore, and those who can have gotten rusty. Interestingly, one area where Carny has been clinging to life is in the industry of professional wrestling. This is not really surprising when you consider that what we now know as pro wrestling originally started as a carnival sideshow, where they would wrestle each other and challenge the crowd to wrestle for wagers. To pull this off they would use plants in the unsuspecting crowd to trick the audience into thinking they could win, and to pull this off they used Carny to communicate their intent or to telegraph what moves they would pull on each other. In modern times, a few old school wrestlers still use it to communicate, as a badge of honor, a gimmick, and a way to convey the next move they plan to make without anyone overhearing it. Nevertheless, even among pro wrestlers the use of Carny is dying out, and few of the younger wrestlers understand it anymore.
It’s sad to think that the tradition of the carnival, as well as its culture and language, are vanishing in the encroaching modern world. These were long places that seemed to almost exist in their own world, outside of the reality we deal with every day. When you went to one you were transported to another time and another realm. There was long a sense of mystery and thrill to going to the carnival, which kept the traditions alive up to modern times, and Kate Istra Winter, author of The Secret History of Carnival Talk, explains this mysterious allure beautifully, saying:
There’s a feeling with a carnival that it might not be entirely solid or real, that magic could still happen in the cracks. You may still be able to get your fortune told, you can have your face painted and become someone else, get lost for a moment in a hall of mirrors, or delightfully scared in a spooky ride. There’s a liminal quality that isn’t found in many other places in our brightly lit, modern world.
For now the number of people who can actually proficiently speak Carny dwindles, to the point that there have been calls by some to make efforts to resurrect and preserve this historic tradition, this language so inexorably tied to a mindset and way of life that may be in and of itself vanishing. Whatever the future may hold for Carny and the people who hold it dear, it provides a link to a subculture withering under the strain of the modern world, and a fascinating peek into another era and lifestyle which may be soon gone forever, and which we may never get back.