Supriya Ghosh


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Carny, also spelled carnie, is an informal term used in North America for a traveling carnival employee, and the language they use, particularly when the employee runs a game ("joint"), food stand ("grab" or "popper"), or ride at a carnival. The term "showie" is used synonymously in Australia.



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.

Carny language

The carny vocabulary is traditionally part of carnival cant, a secret language. It is an ever-changing form of communication, in large part designed to be impossible to understand by an outsider. As words are assimilated into the culture at large, they lose their function and are replaced by more obscure or insular terms. Most carnies no longer use cant, but some owners/operators and "old-timers" still use some of the classic terms.

In addition to carny jargon, some carnival workers used a special infix ("earz" or "eez" or "iz") to render regular language unintelligible to outsiders. This style eventually migrated into wrestling, hip hop, and other parts of modern culture.

The British form of fairground cant is called "Parlyaree".

Usage in popular culture

  • Carnies is a 2007 movie directed by Brian Corder and starring Chris Staviski, Doug Jones, Reggie Bannister, and Lee Perkins.
  • 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.
  • In the 1988 movie Two Moon Junction, Richard Tyson plays a carny who falls in love with a rich, southern socialite (Sherilyn Fenn).
  • Carny is a 1980 movie directed by Robert Kaylor and starring Gary Busey, Jodie Foster, Robbie Robertson, and Meg Foster. It has become a cult favorite.
  • In the 1997 movie Austin Powers, Austin claims he only fears two things, nuclear war and carnies.
  • In the 2013 movie We're the Millers, Emma Roberts' character Casey meets a carny named Scotty P, played by Mark L. Young, who works a 'Monkey Maze' at the local fair. However he doesn't know the meaning of the word and when asked if he is a carny he responds "I drive a motorcycle".
  • Television
  • In the The Simpsons episode "Bart Carny", Bart Simpson and Homer Simpson are forced to work as carnies after Bart destroys Hitler's car. After failing to bribe Police Chief Chief Wiggum, the ring toss game that they are fraudulently running is shut down. Throughout the episode carny jargon is used. One of the carnies is voiced by Jim Varney.
  • The fourth season of Heroes features several characters that live and work in a traveling carnival.
  • The HBO series "Carniv├ále" centered around a traveling carnival in the American Southwest during the 1930s.
  • Patrick Jane, the title character of the CBS crime drama The Mentalist, was raised as a carny.
  • In The Fairly OddParents episode "The Grass is Greener", Timmy Turner feels unwanted at home and decides to run away to a carnival. Where he is met by several carnies and quickly outperforms them.
  • Music
  • Carny is a psychedelic blues band from Austin, Texas formed in 2005 featuring Paul Leary, guitarist of Butthole Surfers and producer of Sublime, Meat Puppets, Reverend Horton Heat, also featuring drummer Sam McCandless from the band Cold. Singer-songwriter Formica Iglesia, on vocals, fronts the band.
  • "The Carny" is a song from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds on the album Your Funeral... My Trial.
  • The Joni Mitchell song "That Song About The Midway" depicted the singer falling in love with a carny and following the show from town to town.
  • Carney is a 1972 album by Leon Russell.
  • Literature
  • In Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, the protagonist Michael spends some time living with carnies.
  • In Theodore Sturgeon's novel 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.
  • Barry Longyear's Circus World books Circus World, City of Baraboo and Elephant Song are science fiction, set on a planet populated by the descendants of a crashed space-going circus, with preserved and evolved carny culture elements including performance as a means of barter.
  • The 2013 Stephen King novel "Joyland" is set in a 1970s American amusement park and makes reference to "carnies"
  • The 2005 Bryan Johnson and Walter Flanagan comic book series "Karney" follows the exploits of a murderous band of "carnies" who travel from town to town slaughtering the residents with the intention of turning them into barbecue meat.
  • Theater
  • In Liliom by Ferenc Moln├ír the main character is a carnival Carousel Barker
  • In Carousel by Rodgers and Hammerstein, based on Liliom the main character, Billy Bigelow is a Carnival Carousel Barker
  • Other
  • 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.
  • Carnival Games (known in Europe as Carnival: Funfair Games) is a video game made for the Nintendo Wii and Nintendo DS featuring a carny who helps to present and explain gameplay.
  • Many Carny words are still used by professional wrestlers, e.g. mark, work, snozz, et al. Pro wrestling originated in the carnivals of the 19th and early 20th century where wrestlers not wanting to face regular injury and wanting to make bouts more entertaining would 'stage' their fights. Carny language was used to disguise the staged nature of the bouts with all involved keeping "kayfabe" or protecting the secret.
  • Ron Bennington a formal carnival worker and stand up comedian states to his radio partner, "All the world is just carnies and rubes." Insisting you're either part of the gimmick or "a pigeon walking down the midway, enjoying his cotton candy, waiting to lose his rent money on the midway."
  • References

    Carny Wikipedia

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