In 1935, the show business trade paper Variety informed its readers that farm movies were getting a big 'thumbs down' in rural America with the following headline: STICKS NIX HICK PICS. The paper, which turns 100 this year, continues to vex and amuse its readers with a language all its own. In this slanguage, as Variety staffers have dubbed it, media giant Disney is known as the Mouse -- a reference to its mascot, Mickey Mouse. And a buzz can give a movie legs - if the right people are talking about the film so it keeps drawing crowds.
They litter almost every studio and agent's office in Hollywood -- issues of the instantly recognized Hollywood trade paper Variety, its bright green banner and bold headlines heralding opening box office receipts, movie deals, acquisitions, everything on the big and small screen to behind the scenes. In the competitive world of show business, Variety is almost required reading.
For the newcomer, the reading requires a certain knowledge of show biz shorthand. Scanning the headlines at this Los Angeles newsstand, this one caught my eye: MOUSE HEADS TO COURT FOR CEO SEARCH. Now if you didn't know right away this was a story about the Walt Disney Company, don't feel bad. As the paper's executive editor, Tim Gray points out, "If you don't read Variety every day, it's like learning a foreign language."
Mr. Gray is a walking dictionary of showbiz speak, or Variety slanguage. "There is a certain amount of silly fun in slanguage," he admits, "because show business people take themselves so seriously."
So on the pages of Variety, it's not an award show, it's a kudocast. A director is a helmer. BevHills is short for Beverly Hills. H-Wood, [short for] Hollywood. Girlfriend is just GF. The letters NSG stand for Not So Good, and so on.
There are even words that have been developed to be H-Wood politically sensitive. For instance, no one is ever fired in Hollywood, especially if you're a helmer's GF. That would be NSG! So instead, as Tim Gray explains, one is simply ankled, "because the last thing you see when they walk out the door is their ankle. It's kind of neutral because, especially in Hollywood, you don't want to say someone is fired because they'll call and say 'No, no, I quit, they didn't fire me.' And so they [the former employers] will say 'He was fired, who was he kidding?' So that kind of thing we use every day." His personal favorite word is boffo, which means the absolute best it can be.
Somehow it's hard to imagine that, even in Hollywood, grown men and women might be using the word boffo in conversation, still, says Mr. Gray, "The Oxford English Dictionary has 20 words it attributes to Variety and that's kind of impressive. Words like striptease and payola and soap opera that Variety coined and they've become part of the daily language." Some other words you may recognize are punch line and show biz.
But does contributing to a couple of dozen words to the everyday language really make slanguage understandable? Well, maybe we should do a field test. A couple of Variety's casually tucked under my arm serve as my passport at an industry insider lunch spot. Michael Kassan is an executive in the entertainment industry. Still, this headline might stump him: KILLER TURNED FOR HUNT. It didn't take long for him to figure it out: "Killer Films is a production company and [actress] Helen Hunt is going to do a film for them." PILOTS READY FOR TAKE-OFF was just as easy. "It's a story about TV shows," he explains. "And TV shows prepared for series are called pilots."
Clearly this crowd speaks the language. Heading east on Sunset, we'll try the Variety headline test at the famed tourist spot, Grauman's Chinese Theater. Three women from Orlando, Florida, are stumped. One of them takes a guess, "Pilots Ready for Takeoff… a movie? I have no idea," she admits. MOUSE MEN SET SAIL is another stumper, as the 3 confer with each other. "Mouse Men Set Sail… Let me see…" After a moment or 2, they give up. "No, no, nope…" they laugh. It was a story about two actors who signed on to a Disney film, probably a sea-going adventure.
These tourists said they didn't think they'd subscribe to Variety any time soon… but it's still possible to sound like an industry insider. For those who want to learn how to speak the language of show biz, The Hollywood Dictionary, a glossary of some 200 terms, will be published this fall.