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Wafters, fuff and dicky birds: Inside theatre's hidden history of words

Adam Jacot de Boinod

The different scholastic disciplines across Mid Victorian Britain, were steeped in listing all before them be they minerals, butterflies or vocabulary.

I have delved deep into the respective glossaries that these lexicographers were very assiduous in compiling. And, as you will see, theatrical terminology was suitably recorded, often with their coinage dates (displayed below in brackets).

It would appear that merely sitting in a corner with a book has never been enough for one creative group, namely the theatrical world, who flourish in our chill and cloudy culture, as these examples richly testify:

  • nap-nix (c1860) an amateur playing minor parts for experience

  • dicky bird (theatre jargon) an actor who can also sing

  • belcher (1930s) a performer with a frog in the throat

  • crawk (1930s) a performer acting as an animal imitator

  • cabotinage (1894) behaviour typical of a second-rate actor or strolling player, implying a tendency to play to the gallery or overact

  • come back Tuesday (theatre jargon) clichéd pieces of pseudo-friendly advice from theatrical directors and management to hopefuls meaning to ‘go away!’

  • flag-fallen (16C) unemployed (used first of actors: the playhouse flag was lowered where there was no performance)

  • oyster part (theatre jargon) an actor who appears and speaks or acts only once (like an oyster he opens but once)

Many are the tricks of the trade to be learnt in this most demanding of callings; and theatre has developed a fine jargon to describe it:

  • swallow the cackle - to learn a part

  • ping - to speak one’s lines softly, with no special emphasis

  • pong - to speak in blank verse after forgetting one’s lines

  • stagger - the first rehearsal without a script in one’s hands

  • wing - to fasten one’s script to one of the wing flats or some other part of the scenery when one has failed to learn it properly and thus needs an occasional reference during the performance

  • Mummerset (JB Priestley: Festival at Farbridge 1951) fake peasant accents adopted by actors to denote a supposed rural origin (from a mix of Somerset and mummer)

Normal costume apart, a range of numerous cunning accessories assist the thespian’s art:

  • bird’s nest (theatre jargon) crepe wool used to construct false beards

  • heart (theatre jargon) the padding out of their tights by acrobats, actors etc. to prevent an otherwise painful fall

  • puddle (US 2007) a heap of clothing an actor steps into and is quickly zipped inside during one of those split-second costume changes that dazzle audiences

… to say nothing of the marvellous devices:

  • wafters (Geordie dialect) swords made with blunt edges for performers

  • bronteon (Ancient Greek 1849) a device used in theatre or movies to create thunder

  • scruto (1853) a spring trapdoor, flush with the floor of a stage, for a ghost to rise through, for sudden falls and other effects

  • pepper’s ghost (theatre jargon) a trick used to create a ‘ghost’ on stage by using an inclined sheet of plate glass onto which an actor can be projected as if ‘walking through air’

  • Faye (UK 2005) a bright light placed at eye level, in front of the performer, which helps to hide wrinkles (in honour of Faye Dunaway, who always insists on one)

But once you’re out there, darling, you’re as naked as the day you were born:

  • ventilator - a play so appallingly bad that the audience leaves well before the final curtain, and their seats are filled only with fresh air

  • exsibilation (1640) the collective hisses of a disapproving audience

  • handcuffed - an actor’s description of an audience who will not applaud

  • stiff (1930s) a terrible joke, rewarded only by silence

  • soso (1930s) a joke rewarded by a smile, but not a laugh

  • gravy - easy laughs from a friendly audience

  • crack the monica (music hall jargon c1860) to ring the bell to summon a performer to reappear

Though you may be deep into your role, you’ll still have one eye on the view beyond the footlights:

  • plush family - empty seats in the auditorium (i.e. the plush covered seats that can be seen from the stage)

  • whiskey seats - seats on the aisle (popular both with critics, who need to get out before the rush and phone in their reviews, and those who like to escape to the bar when the action palls)

  • baskets are in - a full house (from the one-time practice of leaving the prop baskets as security against the income of a touring company: if the house didn’t guarantee the payment of the theatre’s rent, the props were theoretically forfeit

Theatres can benefit from selling tickets to seat all the audience next to one another. Even if the performance doesn’t sell out and the theatre finds itself half full, the audience will be seated as a group, increasing the odds of the positive influence of ‘group dynamics’ whereby one person’s enjoyment affects the next etc.

Some theatres even go so far as to ‘to paper the house’ meaning to give away free theatre tickets (often to family and friends of the cast) in order to fill up an under-subscribed performance. This used to happen when a critic was attending!

Of course, for actors who can’t face the stage, the last hundred years has offered another, often more rewarding, way to go:

  • first man through the door - the leading villain

  • stay with the money - a director’s comment to a cameraman, telling him to keep filming the biggest box office draw on the set

  • Kensington gore - fake blood used for death and disasters on the screen (a pun on the street that runs south of Hyde Park)

  • fuff - fake snow for wintertime effects

  • spinach cinema - movies which are educational but not always enjoyable

Adam Jacot de Boinod worked on the first series of QI, the BBC programme, hosted by Stephen Fry, and is the author of The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from around the World, published by Penguin Books.

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