Talking the lingo

<I>Variety</I>-speak enters the mainstream, for good or bad

For 100 years, Variety has been rewriting the English language. Its headlines are incomprehensible to any but those in the biz (for show business). Would “civilians” (those not in showbiz) understand that “Wall Street lays an egg” referred to the stock market crash of 1929, or that “Sticks Nix Hick Pix” meant rural subjects in movies were disliked by country auds (for audiences)? These are well-known examples of Variety-speak or Variety-write.

In Variety, B.O. refers not to body odor but to box office receipts. Who but a Variety reader could possibly think chopsocky was a martial arts movie? Or cleffer a songwriter? Or click as not something you do on a computer but a commercial hit. Blockbuster is not a bomb but a huge hit, and a bomb in Variety means a flop or an unredeemable failure.

Variety instigated slanguage elsewhere. The columnist Walter Winchell was inspired by the paper to create his own slanguage: “Blessed event” for a birth, “don’t invitems” for Sharon and Arafat invitations to the same party, “debutramp” for society girls who are less than pure, “splitsville” for divorce court and “hardened artery” for Broadway.

Even the regular press was influenced by Variety headlines. Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post gave the world “Headless girl body in topless bar,” while the New York Daily News issued this classic: “Ford to New York, drop dead.”

The Big Apple has become slanguage for New York. In addition there’s Beantown for Boston, Chi for Chicago, Cincy for Cincinnati and Blighty for Britain.

Chantoosie means a female singer (also canary, chirper or warbler) and praiser is a press agent. One term (in disuse of late) is passion pits for drive-in theaters, so called because of their romantic allure for teenagers.

Some of Variety‘s slanguage has become well understood outside the entertainment world, such as soap opera for a daytime radio or TV serial, showbiz for the entertainment business and tuner for a Broadway musical, whodunit for a mystery film and sitcom for a situation comedy.

Some terms that have not come into common use are b.f. for boyfriend, kidvid for children’s television and greenlit for approval of a film to be made.

A rich source of slanguage is in the underworld itself, a realm not unknown to the denizens of Variety. The word “mob” could easily spring from Variety‘s pages, as could “spring” itself, for having been released from confinement, and “moll” for the g.f. of a gangster. Add to these “the big house” for prison, “taken for a ride” for a gangland execution and “cement shoes” for disposal of a body in a river.

Mug shots

Most of Variety‘s unique word culture was devised by Variety mugs (mugs being Variety reporters of its vintage years). Founder Sime Silverman, followed by editor Abel Green, are among its early linguists.

Variety dubbed itself “The Bible of Show Business.” We readers inhabit a world of our own with our own dictionary. My favorite headline referred to the founder of CBS, whose company was floundering during his absence in the army. The headline: “Bill Paley, won’t you please come home” — paraphrasing a popular ditty (song in Variety lingo) of the era.

Variety has created words — and killed ’em as well over the past 100 years. Click here for a list of the paper’s lost lingo that hasn’t surfaced in print in during the Internet era. In fact, some of these terms, culled from our yellowed back issues, fell through the cracks of our Slanguage Dictionary, which can be accessed at variety.com/slanguage.

(David Brown, recipient of the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award, has produced such films as “Jaws,” “The Verdict,” “A Few Good Men” and “Chocolat.”)

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