I had an uncle that worked his lifetime for the carnival. He spent most of his life with a group called Mound City Shows. From thanksgiving on, he would often make his rounds to visit and stay with family members. However, as soon as the weather broke, he would be gone with a hearty see you next year. Although he was a little slow mentally, he had a heart of gold.
I once talked with him about the language that carnival workers used. He was very reluctant to get into it, but did reveal some terms to me. I then did my own research and found an article from 1973 in Time magazine.
My uncle said the most used phrase was, “Are you with it?” This trick question meant to find out if you understood carny language. It could also mean do you work for the carnival. Many carnivals hire part time workers. If you work, but aren’t present when they leave, you lose your pay. Carnivals leave faster than they arrive. Many carnivals don’t even take out income taxes. It is a straight up pay per hour.
Many carnival workers grow with their families on the road. That means most are home schooled and many just continue their lives in the carny world. In the early years, some traveling carnivals would furnish a teacher until they hit winter camp. These teachers were also regular carny workers.
Carnival workers don’t like outsiders. Some have criminal records. This is why they set up their own language. My uncle went with the carnival at the age of 10. He said it was his way to see the world. The joints (carnivals) that he worked with mainly worked the Midwest. To this day, there are still many carnivals that tour. They basically handle town and village homecomings.
Some of the language terms used are as follows.
Punk Rides; Small rides for little children.
Ten in One; Freak Shows.
Slum; Small inexpensive prizes for games.
Privilege; Rent paid by an outside concession.
Grab Joint; Food concession stand.
Take the Night Off; A term used for the night of the fast getaway.
Gaffed; A game that is rigged.
Forty Miler; A carnival that refuses to travel very far or leave the State they reside in.
Flat Store; A rigged gambling game.
Set Up; Setting up the rides before the start date.
Cut Up the Jackpots; Talking informally.
Catching On; Staying with the carnival, when they leave town.
Sticking to the point; Working the same ride over and over again.
These are only a few of the terms that carny workers use. There are some terms that are never given up. Not all carnivals have the same language either. The terms above are just common knowledge among most carnivals.