Slang City Mail

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February 28, 2008

Slang of the Week: blow-off (noun)
a show at a carnival or fair that takes place after the main show

Fred’s wife was looking forward to the pie baking contest at the State Fair, but all Fred could think about was the blow-off after the cooch show.

Celebrity quote:
“Once inside [the tent] there was a very brief side-show performance and the pitch for the cooch blow-off, and Henry collected the money for the after show in a cigar box.”
— A.W. Stencell in the book Girl Show: Into the Canvas World of Bump and Grind

Stencell worked in circuses most of his life and served as president of the Circus Historical Society from 2002 to 2005. His book is full of slang associated with the world of traveling shows. As an example, he critiques the local grifters (confidence artists) who set up three card monte stands outside the circus sideshows. “A real old-time flattie would never leave a mark wailing and never take all his scratch,” he says derisively. A flattie was a carnival worker who ran a dishonest game to take scratch (money) from marks (visitors who could be tricked).

However, this week’s slang does not come directly from his entertaining anecdotes of circus life. I heard it for the first time last week when I was watching a DVD of Carnivale, an HBO series about a small carnival traveling around the Southwest of the United States during the Great Depression. Along with the Ferris wheel and other rides, the carnival features a bearded lady, a snake man, a fortune teller and two “cooch” dancers.

Cooch (from the earlier hootchy-cootchy) is a kind of erotic dance, and in Carnivale (as in the example) the blow-off was related to the cooch show. The girls started out on a bally, or small stage, on the midway, where they danced in skimpy costumes to attract paying customers to another show in a tent. Inside, the same women, who today would be called “exotic dancers,” gyrated on the stage topless. After that, those who paid for the blow-off could see the women dance nude and strike erotic poses. Those who didn’t went out to the midway to lose more money to the flatties.

Take a look in our bookstore for books and DVDs on all kinds of slang! This week’s pick: Learn more about carnival (and other) slang with Talk the Talk: The Slang of 65 American Subcultures by Luc Reid.