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A carny ("jointee") and his coconut shy in 2005

Carny, also spelled carnie, is an informal term used in North America for a traveling carnival employee, and the language they use, particularly when the employee operates a game ("joint"), food stand ("grab", "popper" or "floss wagon"), or ride ("ride jock") at a carnival. The term "showie" is used synonymously in Australia.[1]


Carny is thought to have become popularized around 1931 in North America, when it was first colloquially used to describe one who works at a carnival.[2] The word carnival, originally meaning a "time of merrymaking before Lent" and referring to a time denoted by lawlessness (often ritualised under a lord of misrule figure and intended to show the consequences of social chaos), came into use around 1549.

Carny language[edit]

The carny vocabulary is traditionally part of carnival cant, a secret language. It is an ever-changing form of communication, in large part designed to be impossible to understand by an outsider.[3] As words are assimilated into the culture at large, they lose their function and are replaced by more obscure or insular terms.[citation needed] Most carnies no longer use cant, but some owners/operators and "old-timers" ("half yarders") still use some of the classic terms.

In addition to carny jargon, some carnival workers used a special infix ("earz" or "eez" or "iz") to render regular language unintelligible to outsiders. This style eventually migrated into wrestling, hip hop, and other parts of modern culture.[4]

The British form of fairground cant is called "Parlyaree".

Usage in popular culture[edit]

  • In The Blacklist season 5, episode 1, two carnies speak carny among each other, and Raymond Reddington says he understands some carny. In season 5, episode 11, Reddington speaks carny to an associate while being involved in illegal dealings.
  • In The Simpsons episode "Bart Carny", Bart Simpson and Homer Simpson are forced to work as carnies after Bart destroys Hitler's car. After failing to bribe Police Chief Chief Wiggum, the ring toss game that they are fraudulently running is shut down. Throughout the episode carny jargon is used. One of the carnies is voiced by Jim Varney.
  • The fourth season of Heroes features several characters that live and work in a traveling carnival.
  • The HBO series "Carnivàle" centered around a traveling carnival in the American Southwest during the 1930s.
  • Patrick Jane, the title character of the CBS crime drama The Mentalist, was raised as a carny.
  • In The Fairly Odd Parents episode "The Grass is Greener", Timmy Turner feels unwanted at home and decides to run away to a carnival. There he is met by several carnies and quickly outperforms them.
  • In Michael Kurland's The Unicorn Girl, one of the Greenwich Village Trilogy, first published in 1969, some of the main characters are from a carny travelling between the stars in an alternate universe. Sylvia, one of the travellers, uses carny cant when she and one of the two Earth-born protagonists go into a carnival apparently in Earth's 20th century.
  • In Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, the protagonist Michael spends some time living with carnies.
  • In Theodore Sturgeon's novel The Dreaming Jewels, the hero flees with carnies to escape a brutal father. The head carny collects unusual people because he has discovered strange jewels that create people as works of art. Sturgeon himself worked as a carny for a time.
  • Barry Longyear's Circus World books Circus World, City of Baraboo and Elephant Song are science fiction, set on a planet populated by the descendants of a crashed space-going circus, with preserved and evolved carny culture elements including performance as a means of barter.
  • The 2013 Stephen King novel Joyland is set in a 1970s American amusement park and makes reference to "carnies".
  • The 2005 Bryan Johnson and Walter Flanagan comic book series Karney follows the exploits of a murderous band of "carnies" who travel from town to town slaughtering the residents with the intention of turning them into barbecue meat.
  • In Liliom by Ferenc Molnár the main character is a carnival Carousel Barker.
  • In Carousel by Rodgers and Hammerstein, based on Liliom the main character, Billy Bigelow is a Carnival Carousel Barker.
  • Much of the fiction of pulp writer Fredric Brown features carnies and touches on carnival life, in particular the Ed and Am Hunter mysteries, beginning with The Fabulous Clipjoint in 1947.
  • Carnival Games (known in Europe as Carnival: Funfair Games) is a video game made for the Nintendo Wii and Nintendo DS featuring a carny who helps to present and explain gameplay.
  • Many Carny words are still used by professional wrestlers, e.g. mark, work, snozz, et al. Pro wrestling originated in the carnivals of the 19th and early 20th century, where wrestlers not wanting to face regular injury and wanting to make bouts more entertaining would "stage" their fights. Carny language was used to disguise the staged nature of the bouts with all involved keeping "kayfabe" or protecting the secret.
  • Ron Bennington a formal carnival worker and stand up comedian states to his radio partner, "All the world is just carnies and rubes." Insisting you're either part of the gimmick or "a pigeon walking down the midway, enjoying his cotton candy, waiting to lose his rent money on the midway".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Definition of showie in English". Oxford Living Dictionary. Retrieved April 6, 2017.
  2. ^ "Definition of carny". Merriam-Webster Online. Retrieved November 6, 2007.
  3. ^ Carny.
  4. ^ The Secret History of Carnival Talk.
  5. ^ [1] Archived July 8, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ [2] Archived March 13, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ US. "CARNY | Gratis muziek, tourneedata, foto's, video's". Retrieved January 6, 2013.
  8. ^ US. "Butthole Surfers | Gratis muziek, tourneedata, foto's, video's". Retrieved January 6, 2013.

Eyeing the Flash: The Making of a Carnival Con Artist, by Peter Fenton (Simon & Schuster, 2006 [paperback version])

Further reading[edit]

  • Lewis, Arthur H. (1970). Carnival. New York: Trident Press. The author traveled with several U.S. carnivals and gained the confidence of many carnies.

External links[edit]