Slang of the Stage

Fri Oct 6 17:32:36 UTC 2000

An article from the New York Daily Tribune, July 20, 1890, p. 16,
col. 4:

        The Slang of the Stage.  De Wolf Hopper Acts as Translator.  Terse
and Expressive, if not Elegant.  The Hog is not Unknown behind the

        [An interview with Hopper in his dressing room, during a performance
before an unresponsive audience.  He returns from the stage:]  "It is
a case of extra-frappe, he said during the interval, "and enough to
give you pneumonia just to look at them.
        "What on earth do you mean?" asked one of the little party.
        "I mean that it's a bitterly cold audience," replied the comedian. .
. .  "Frappe is a bit of stage-slang which is gradually coming into
general use.  As its originator I flatter myself it is somewhat
expressive and a trifle neat.
        "Have you ever thought, by the way, how terse and expressive the
generality of stage slang is?  ***"
        "'To hog,'" for instance, means to try and get the laughter and
applause which in the nature of things belong to your fellow
performers, a more easy task to the experienced actor than an
outsider would imaging and one which is an especial favorite of some
stars, who would take a fit if one of their company were to 'get a
        "There, that is another expressive term.  What can be more
significant of applause?  A 'jay' is an outsider of any description.
Country people are always jays and a town in the wild and woolly West
in a jay-town.  "An angel" is, I think, a delicious term.  An angel
is the meritorious individual who is backing a company or a star and
who as a general rule is gaining experience and losing a little hard
cash. . . .
        "'Paper,' tout simple, as we say in Gaul, means the printed bills or
lithographs of every description which herald forth to a suffering
public [news of a show].  'To paper a house,' on the contrary, means
to fill it with apathetic individuals who are afraid to applaud
because their seats have cost them nothing.  When the deadheads are
once inside the building they are referred to as 'snow'. . . .
        "When a play fails it is a 'post'; when it succeeds it is a 'hit,'
and in the latter case the chances are that the 'ghost will walk'; or
in other words, that salaries will be promptly paid. . . . .
        "When an actor does not know his part or his 'lines,' as we call it,
he is 'fluffy,' and is liable to 'queer' his fellow performers.  He
may also perform this feat by 'drying up' or forgetting a portion of
his part, as frequently happens to every one, no matter how often
they have played that particular character.  An experienced actor,
however, . . . will get along and deceive his audience by "winging
it,' which means catching enough of it, and his 'cues' in particular,
from the prompter, who stands at the 'wings,' as the old-fashioned
side-scenes were called.
        "Every actor . . . will occasionally take liberties with the
author's text and interpolate lines or phrases of his own; then he is
'gagging.'  When he finds the lines so bad that he thinks he would
lose his self-respect by speaking them with serious intent he
burlesques them slightly in the delivery, and if he does it cleverly
the audience are given to snigger at his 'guying.'  'Guying' is just
about one degree more serious a crime than 'gagging.'  A short
engagement is a 'snap,' and some unfortunates who can never get a
regular engagement support a precarious existence on 'snaps'
alone.  Then they are termed 'turkey-actors,' for their richest
picking are to be found about Thanksgiving Day, when every little
town or village will support one show at least, however bad.
        "An actor's part is divided into 'lengths,' of forty-two lines each,
and if he learns it quickly he is said to be 'a good study'; if not,
he is naturally 'a bad study.'  The auditorium is always 'in front,'
and actors are always anxious to know how the piece went 'in front.'
Next day they look for 'notices' or criticism in the papers.
        "An actor who always 'wants the centre,' or tries to get continually
in the middle of the stage, is abhorred by all his fellows.  So is
the fellow who always tries 'to get above," or to stand so far up the
stage as to compel his companions to turn their backs to the audience
in order to address him.
        "The actor who 'makes a hit,' or succeeds in a part and immediately
wants his salary raised for $25 to $250 a week is said to have 'a big
head,' or an 'elephantine caput.' as we nowadays put it when we speak
        "But if I bore you much longer you will be asking me, as we are wont
to tenderly inquire of our fellow actor who has just stepped off the
stage amid a whirlwind of applause, 'Have you been on yet?' . . . .

        Among the interesting words and phrases here are:
        "to get above", meaning what I'm used to thinking of as "to
upstage": not in RHHDAS; I didn't check OED.
        "an angel":  RHHDAS has 2 quotes from 1897, 1 from 1900, &c.  This
is an antedating.
        "to dry up":  RHHDAS has a quote from a British source from 1889, an
American source from 1900.  An antedating in the US.
        "frappe" isn't in RHHDAS; I didn't check OED.  It seems to have been
a voguish word for cold in the 1880s, since I remember seeing it
applied to a bottle of "the widow" (champagne, presumably from Veuve
Cliquot) in a pamphlet of stories by ??? McKeever, a writer for the
National Police Gazette of the early 80s.
        RHHDAS has "to guy", to ridicule, from 1867, but doesn't have it
in this context.
        "a hit": I was surprised that RHHDAS has this as early as 1811 in
England, (1841 in the US).  I would have supposed this was an
extension of the baseball sense; but then, I suppose one hits the
ball in cricket, too.  By the way, just to tantalize you all: I have
a reference to the game and the word "base ball" from 1823, and
antedating in the US.  I will post it here in a few months, but I
don't want to scoop the journal (The National Pastime) that's going
to publish it.
        "to hog": I was surprised that the ealiest cite for this is RHHDAS
was 1887; seems like an obvious metaphor.
        "a jay" is in RHHDAS from 1884, 1886, 1887, &c.  I didn't notice
        "turkey actor": this is the most iteresting or all.  OED has
"turkey", a bad play, a flop, but only from 1927, and doesn't have
"turkey actor" at all.  This passage gives a very plausible
explanation for the association of turkeys with bad shows: "Turkey
actors" were untalented actors who could only be sure of having work
on Turkey Day, when there are many shows staged, "however bad".
Shows were "*turkey shows" because only at Thanksgiving time would
such a mouldy script or such an assemblage of untalented variety
performers be put on stage.

        I believe that De Wolf Hopper was Hedda Hopper's father, if anyone
remembers who Hedda Hopper was.


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