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Variety celebrates 100 years of slanguage

EVERY MEDIA OUTLET in the country, or so it seems, has been brimming with gossip about the Academy Awards, but if you've found yourself thinking of tonight's televised hoopla as a ''kudocast,'' you could only have been reading Variety.

The legendary Hollywood trade newspaper - which celebrates its centennial this year - has earned a reputation for the quirky jargon it uses to report on the business of entertainment. Terms like ''kudocast'' (meaning ''awards show''), ''to ankle'' (to leave a job), ''boffo'' (outstanding), ''chopsocky'' (a martial arts film), ''tuner'' (a musical), ''sudser'' (a soap opera), and ''chantoosie'' (a female singer) pepper Variety's pages, giving its articles and reviews a knowing, irreverent tone and a clipped rhythm that's unlike any other periodical's. When the magazine covers the Oscars - and by the end of this season it will have published a total of 46 special reports on subjects related to the awards - the writing is likely to crackle with the insidery staccato of ''slanguage,'' as Variety staffers have dubbed it.

''I thought I knew the English language until one day I saw Variety in a friend's home,'' George Bernard Shaw remarked back in 1938. ''Upon my soul, I didn't understand a word of it.''

Shaw was hardly the only one to be wowed (a Variety-coined verb). In 1935, the editors ran a headline so memorable that, for some in artistic and media spheres, it still ranks right up there with ''Dewey Beats Truman'': ''Sticks Nix Hick Pix,'' blared the celebrated heading, notifying readers that rural audiences were unenthused about movies with rural settings.

''Someone asked me once, 'Do you ever try and top that?''' remarks Variety executive editor Timothy M. Gray, whose book ''The Hollywood Dictionary'' will be published by the magazine's publishing arm this coming August. ''Well, you can't do it. You try to live up to that legacy.''

. . .

Launched in 1905 by a bow-tie-wearing journalist named Sime Silverman, Variety in its early days principally covered vaudeville and similar live acts; later it turned the lens on movies, TV, ''legitimate'' theater (the publication's writers and editors still use the term ''legit'' to refer to live theater), radio, and other media. Daily Variety, a daily edition of the weekly, kicked off in 1933, and Daily Variety Gotham, a daily version that features expanded coverage of the New York entertainment scene, revved up in 1998. All use slanguage on a regular basis.

According to Peter Besas's book ''Inside 'Variety''' (2000), the 1920s saw the biggest burst of slanguage, which reflected the era's Broadway argot and broader vernacular (think Walter Winchell), as well as the creativity of seminal editors (like Abel Green, credited with ''Sticks Nix Hick Pix''). Over the years, some slanguage bon mots have infiltrated the general public's lexicon: The Oxford English Dictionary cites Variety as its earliest source for about two dozen terms, including ''punch line'' (1921), ''payola'' (1938), ''strip-tease'' (1936), ''shoot-'em-up'' (1953) and ''show biz'' (1945). Other slanguage items, proving less contagious, remain more or less exclusive to Variety's pages: staples like ''helmer'' (director), the ''Alphabet web'' (ABC network), the ''Mouse House'' (Disney), ''percentery'' (talent agency), ''praisery'' (PR firm), ''actioner'' (action movie), and ''laffer'' (comedy).

''It's a shorthand,'' explains Gray. ''We work on the supposition that people who work in show biz work really hard hours. They don't have time to sit down and read a newspaper in a leisurely way. Give them the news. Give it to them fast. Make it snappy. Make it entertaining.'' The workaholic readership notwithstanding, he thinks there's a tongue-in-cheek aspect to slanguage. ''It's a way of saying, 'You know, this is show biz. Don't take it too seriously,''' he says.

In a forthcoming article in the journal Verbatim, word sleuth Dave Wilton, author of ''Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends'' (2004), writes that after monitoring Daily Variety for about four months in early 2004, he realized that slanguage enlivens ''what could be a rather dull subject.''

''Sure, Hollywood is all about celebrity and glamour,'' Wilton notes, ''but Variety is not. Variety is a business paper, concerned with contracts and deals, profit and loss.''

The patois also aims to convince readers that they are members of an elect, Wilton argues. ''It can be quite baffling to read it for the first time, which I think is part of the intent,'' he said in a recent interview.

New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood, previously a scribbler (to cadge a slanguage term) for Variety, says that insidery thrill can touch the writers as well as readers. ''Once you use the lingo, it gives you a small frisson that you're part of the biz,'' he says.

Still, Isherwood says he didn't use slanguage ''religiously'' when writing for Variety. ''It gave the paper its own style and identity, and that's something I think certainly helped establish its identity way back when,'' he said. ''But personally I wasn't interested in writing in someone else's style.''

Gray, too, downplays the role of slanguage in Variety's writing and editing process. ''We don't use it as much as people think,'' he says. ''A lot of time when people start here, whether as a reporter or an editor, they say, 'I know show biz, I know the angles, I don't know Variety's slanguage very much,' and we say, 'Don't worry about it.' It's not like we have a quota, as if it we had to have at least three slanguage words in each story. If it happens, it's fine.''

The same informality holds, he says, when it comes to hatching idioms for novel phenomena. ''It's not like we have brainstorming sessions where we say, 'We've got to come up with slanguage for these 10 words,''' he says.

Variety's nickname for California's current governor is a case in point: ''When Arnold Schwarzenegger was just an actor, we'd call him Arnie because Schwarzenegger was just a terrible headline - it was just too long. 'Tom Cruise' is a great headline.''

''But after the 2004 election,'' Gray goes on, ''we didn't think we could call him Arnie any more. It was disrespectful.'' Variety, along with some other publications, has taken to calling Schwarzenegger ''The Governator.''

. . .

What are the odds of slanguage neologisms stealing into the mainstream as Variety moves into its next 100 years? Grant Barrett, project editor of ''The Historical Dictionary of American Slang,'' thinks that the current 20-odd first-citation listings for Variety in the Oxford English Dictionary are ''not a bad record for anyone.''

Admittedly, the achievement seems to pale beside that of, say, Time magazine, which has racked up about 240 first-citation listings, Barrett says. (An OED search for The Boston Globe turned up only five words, including 1977's ''rockumentary,'' 1988's ''channel surfing'' as noun, and 1990's ''nymphomanic,'' a variation on ''nymphomaniac.'' A citation in the OED does not assert that the source coined the word, just that no evidence of earlier usage has turned up.) However, Barrett argues, popularizing a new word is in some ways more important than coining it, because ''tens of thousands of words are invented every year and most don't make it.'' To take an example from ''The Hollywood Dictionary,'' Variety may have helped popularize the word ''corny.''

It's this popularizing function, Barrett thinks, that may reveal Variety's true reach, ''because it meets the eyes of media and entertainment people [who] spread the message to people who then spread the message.''

''It's almost a perfect propagation mechanism, wouldn't you think?'' Barrett says with an enthusiasm that Variety itself might describe as whammo. ''The only thing that spreads better than that I can think of is the Ebola virus.''

Celia Wren is the former managing editor of American Theatre.

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