When I was a child and a young adult, nearly all of our British circuses used the private language which we called Parlari.
One of its primary uses was to talk among ourselves when the customers weren't to understand!

In the late 1960's, when we wrote the book Circus Runaway Home we used a lot of words of Parlari, and put in an appendix so that the reader could look them up.
The list below is expanded from the information in that appendix and is being updated as people suggest more words and remind me of words that I have (long) forgotten.

The origin of Parlari is with the workers and artists from many lands. There are words that definitely come from the Gipsy language, Romani and others that sound like familiar words from other European languages.
There has always been an an overlap between "parlari" of the theatre, the circus and the fairgrounds with some words having slightly different meanings according to where you hear them.
You will certainly see the same words spelled in other ways in different books and, not infrequently, with other meanings. I have given the meanings as we knew and used them.

Remember Parlari is not a written language!

© Peter Bendall, 1967 - 1987 & 1997
including later additions!
Last Edits Apr 2002.

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PARLARI - the english Circus Language
A atch, atching verb, adverb
literally a camping place, from the romani Atchin Tan
usually heard in the question "where are you atching to?" meaning "where are you moving (the show) to?"
American Riding Machine is really called a Mechanic. A length of rope passes over a pulley that is hung on a swivel above the middle of the ring. It is used to prevent riders from damaging themselves when learning to do trick riding.
When the public are allowed to try it, it is called by its long name.
Auguste the foolish clown, as opposed to the Joey or white-faced clown.
Animateur The straight man who works with a clown in a speaking gag.
Apex the small pyramid of tent that fills in the top of the canvas betwen the masts on a four pole tent.
B Beast Wagon a four wheeled trailer fitted up with cages to carry the circus animals
Bell Ring or Bale Ring the metal ring to which top canvas is laced where a King Pole passes through. The pull up ropes of the top canvas are tied to this ring.
Belly Box a cupboard fixed underneath a wagon, between the wheels, where you can store things.
Bevvy Beer, by extension a Public House or a Bar.
Bill a poster. equally the act of billing a town.
Buffer (slanging buffer) - a performing dog, as opposed to Jugal the non performing pet or guard dog.
C Carsy (Karsi) literally "the little house" (the smallest room)
In Europe, WC, Toilet. In USA, "the bathroom"
Chat general noun for "a Thing"
Chavvi a boy.
Chovey An (old) clothes shop. Excellent source for costumes for a clown?
Col friend, But Rum Col used to mean the boss.
Continental seating that has specially shaped frames so that there are alternately high and low boards as seat and footboard.
cop (verb) to take or to get.
D Daybill usually a poster which shows the acts in detail, but properly any poster which is put up on the day of the show.
dik see, look at. Dik the donah = look at the woman.
Dinali or Denali money! Pay. (Denarii is Pence in latin!)
Donah a woman
Dots Sheet Music - as used by the circus Orchestra
E Entrée an act.
F Fake or Feke (noun). A Whip.
(verb) to make or do something (dishonestly!) You can feke something to someone by giving it to him secretly. A bad man can feke an animal by hitting it.
Flattie someone from outside show or circus business
Flick-Flack or Flik-Flak a backward handspring. It's more difficult than the ordinary sort because you can't see where to put your hands until it's almost too late.
G Gaff A fair or fairground. Properly "Gav" is the Romani word for a town, which the Gypsies visited on fair days.
Gaffer The boss. A gentleman. Originally would have been a person from a town.
Gag a clown's trick. Usually one that is over too quickly to be an act of its own. A complete number might have several tricks or one gag might be used as a fill in between acts.
Gallery traditional circus seating like steps. Low gallery has only seat boards and your feet touch the ground. High Gallery you put your feet on the board (and the clothes of the person) below.
Ghost (Not quite circus!) "The Ghost Walks" is the theatre way of describing the way they are paid. Our boss explained it by saying that the theatre owner never wanted any actor to know what the others earnt, so he would creep round and give them their money secretly.
Gry a draft horse.
H His Gills one of the names you use when you can't remember someones name. Mr so-and-so.
House, Front of House what the theatre calls the audience and the auditorium. To "do front of house" is to take tickets and show people to their seats. "A good, or poor house"
J jal the Romani word meaning "to come" or "to go"
jal orderly come or go quickly. "roll up" on the fairground
Jib language, speech
Joey (noun) the clown. properly the white-faced clown in the bright coloured suit and not the Auguste, or fool.
joeying (verb) - clowning
Jugal a non performing dog. Those that hang around the ground.
K Ken a house. The police station is the Mingers Ken.
King Pole the main support pole or mast for the tent, usually one two or four in number. A king pole sticks out through a hole in the canvas and the canvas is pulled up around it with ropes.
very old canvas tents were rather fragile and had one king pole in the center with four or even eight queen poles around it. Queen poles also passed through holes and had pull up ropes, but were in the lacings. Quarter poles were between the lacings at the same distance from the king pole as the queen poles.
kushti nice (opposite of moulti)
L Lacing the system of eyelets on one edge and rope loops on the other edge of a canvas top which are used to join sections of canvas together. Also the edge of a section of canvas which has either eyelets or Hoops "take hold of the lacing" "pass through the lacing."
Living Wagon a four wheeled wagon used for accomodation, as opposed to the living trailer which looks like an ordinary holiday caravan.
Lunge a rope, usually tied to a waist belt, for instance that used to stop a person falling outwards when practicing trick riding on a horse. Also may be used for safty on a trapeze or for practicing gymnastics, when there may be two ropes - one on each side of the belt. A similar rope tied to a horses head to keep it running in a circle.
M Mahout the indian word for the person who rides on and controls a working elephant in the forests.
Mangari or Munjari food, for animals or people.
Martin Harvey a fabled actor, who's only notable act was to pretend he was not well and couldn't perform.
Minger (the Romani word for most trades end in -engro.) Minger, Mingro, is the usual trade name for a policeman! The Hokk-horni Mengro or Bow Street Runner.
moulti bad. Moulti Kativa means very bad! (opposite to kushti)
N nanti or nante general word for No. also "do not!"
O Omey A man
P pack, packing getting more people on to gallery seating than would normally fit by persuading them to sit closer together.
Pal used as if it means friend, but is a Romani word for brother.
parker, parca pay up - "parca the Dinali" = pay out the money
Parlari the circus and fairground language, but also used as a verb to mean talking to or with someone.
Parni Rain
Parni Chat see carsy (!) "Gentlemans Toilet"
Patter the words used by clowns in a speaking act, or the narrative spoken by someone during an exotic act.
Pig applied to animals with small eyes. Sometimes Bears and even Elephants get this name.
Prad performing horse, as opposed to the Gry or draft horse which pulls the wagons. (see dutch Pard)
Prop the equipment needed for an act. Theatrical Properties.
Pug a monkey.
Q Quarter the section of canvas that makes up one quarter of the circle of the top canvas.
Quarter Pole one of the poles which are set between the middle seam on the canvas between the wall and the outer edge so as to push it up and stop it drooping. A Quarter pole does not pass through the canvas but usually has a mushroom shaped cap with two small holes. Ropes are sewn to the canvas each side of a leather pad and they pass throgh the holes to pull up the pole and secure it.
R Rakli a girl
Ring Doors the curtained off area behind the artists entrance, made so that the performers can stand in the tent without being seen.
The Ring Door Curtains are the curtains through which the artists enter the ring.
Ring Groom back in the days of horse drawn circuses there were two sorts of horse grooms, those for the draft horses and those for the Ring (show) horses. The Ring Groom got to tahe his horses into the show. Nowadays a ring groom is the non performer who fetches and carries Props in the show.
rokker or rocra speak,understand. rokker the jib = understand the language.
Roller the special harness used on a Ring Horse by the bareback rider. It has a handle on each side.
Romani the Gypsy language. If you want to read more about Romani, read George Borrows book Romano Lavo Lil - "the word-book of the Romani". Here it is!
Rum Col literally "Best Friend" but usually the boss is the Rum Col.
Run In something short done by a clown to fill in a pause. The clown runs in to do something that is not long enough to be an actual act.
S scarper run off or run away
To Scarper the Tober was to depart without paying the rent!
Side Pole short poles, 2-3 metres long, that go at the outer edge of the top canvas alternating inside and outside the walls of the big tent. They are needed to hold the edges of the top canvas off the ground.
Slang (noun) A show or a fairground sideshow. The circus tent may be called the slang. To perform is "to slang".
(verb) to perform What time are you slanging tonight?
slanging ... a performing something. A slanging buffer = a performing dog.
Spiel an announcement made during an act to describe what is going on.
Spot an act, but referring to a performer. His first spot is usually his speciality act, his second spot another type of act. (someone doing two spots is more likely to get a job than a person who just does one!)
Stand (n) the period that the show spends on one ground. "The next stand." "The last stand of the season." "A one night stand."
(v) to be built up (and showing) on a Tober
Stick and Rag Show. the lowest quality of circus, poorer than poor!
T tawni small. This word may also been the origin of the name tanner for a six penny piece.
Tent Master the person responsible for the safety and repairs of the tent. He may often have been from the merchant navy, having learnt his trade in sailing ships.
Tent Men non performing workers, mainly employed to build up and pull down the circus. In modern circuses the same men may be Ring Grooms, look after animals and drive transport as well.
Tober the circus ground. The Romani word means the road rather than the stopping place. A Tobey Mush is a tramp!
Tober-Omey The owner, or agent, for a circus ground.
Top not the whole tent, but just the actual top part. To be honest, I never heard anyone call the performing tent a "Big Top" when I worked in our circus!
Trailer a two wheeled vehicle towed behind a lorry or a tractor. Usually reserved for the two wheeled living wagons normally known as Caravans.
traished frightened
Tub a round or square box, originally the end of a barrel, used for an animal to stand on.
V Voltige from the french for flying - the art of riding where the performer jumps on and off the horse, stands kneels and even dances on the horses back
W Wagon a four wheeled trailer. A living wagon is a four wheeled trailer which is lived in. A Beast Wagon is a travelling cage. A Pack wagon is a wagon with equipment, seating, props etc., in it
Walling the canvas which is hung between the top canvas and the ground like a wall.
© Peter Bendall, 1967 - 1987, 1997

Any Additions or corrections gratefully received at

A Circus Tent - seen inside - 1960's Style

This picture shows the inside of a typical rope-and-canvas tent. The shaped panels of canvas, alternately blue and white, are sewn to ropes, in later tents to webbing, that run from the ridge of a parallel sided center or the leather peak of a Quarter of canvas. I have fond memories of sitting on the ground of tobers all over England and Wales and replacing damaged panels on an even older tent belonging to the same family show. A tent which was reputed to have had every piece of canvas replaced at least three times!

In front of the Ring Doors, with the curtains and the name-board, you can see the circular boxes of the Ring Fence and the Box Fronts between the Ring Fence and the "village hall chairs" of the expensive Box Seats.

Unusually, this circus still had High Gallery seating, even into the 1980's, a section which can be seen on the left of the picture.

This tent is unusually built up with the two King Poles "fore and aft" so that one pole is standing near the artists entrance and one near the public entrance. Looking carefully you can see the nearer King Pole close to the right hand side of the picture and identify the main Pull Up Rope wound tidily around the bottom. The forest of Quarter Poles, with their caps against the diamond shaped leather pads on the canvas and their feet near the Ring Fence stand out clearly. Those behind the nearer boxes have been crossed so that they are behind the best seats. Look carefully where two Quarter Poles are missing on the left, and you will see that the pad of the nearer one has two ropes hanging down that will be used to pull up and hold the pole. The side poles can be seen clearly against the darker blue walling at the bottom of each alternate panel of top canvas. The special Knot used for securing the ropes of the quarter poles can just be seen near the bottom center of the picture.

Circus Runaway Home

This book was written in about 1967 and had a small distribution among British circus enthusiasts. Less than 100 copies were sold. During 1995 - in a resurgence of interest in "real" circus - the author was approached to revise the book and re-present it to the publishers. The Book can be read as the .PDF format HERE (686Kb). -- Or bound books under the URL HERE

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