Journo’s Boffo Lingo: The Slang of Daily Variety, Part I

(This article originally appeared in Verbatim, Vol. XXX, No. 1, Spring 2005.)

Those who for the first time open up Daily Variety, the trade paper of Hollywood and the American entertainment industry, are often baffled and stymied by the paper’s use of language. Take, for example, this headline, “‘KING’ NIPS SHIP WITH 11 NOMS” (28 Jan 2004, p. 24). To most the headline is unintelligible, but to those familiar with Variety it is announcing that the movie ‘Return of the King’ beat out ‘Master and Commander’ with eleven Academy Award nominations. Another example is the opening line of an article that appears in the 11 February 2004 issue, “A hefty writedown at Blockbuster knocked Viacom into the red last quarter despite a strong perf at those true-blue cable nets and strides at Paramount, where prexy Mel Karmazin praised the 2004 pic slate.” Variety employs a number of grammatical tricks and jargon terms, which it dubs “slanguage,” to achieve its distinctive style.

This style achieves two main objectives. Like all jargon, it creates the sense of an “in crowd.” It seeks to exclude those outside the industry and puff up the Texas-sized egos of those in Hollywood. It also enlivens up what could be a rather dull subject. Sure Hollywood is all about celebrity and glamour, but Variety is not. Variety is a business paper, concerned with contracts and deals, profit and loss. The inventive use of language spices up the subject matter and combines the tone of a gossip column with the subject of a business journal.

Variety began publication in 1905, founded by Simon J. “Sime” Silverman, a gambler and general ne’er-do-well, with a $2,500 loan from his father. Silverman went into the news business with the motto, “bury the puff and give me the fact.” Silverman may have eschewed “puff,” but from the beginning Variety used a distinctive, slangy style. In 1933, the paper became a daily and changed its name to Daily Variety. On 17 July 1935, the paper published the most famous instance of its slanguage, “Sticks Nix Hick Pix,” a headline for an article about rural audiences rejecting a film about rural life.

Variety’s style comprises three major techniques. The paper likes to use plays on words and rhymes, especially in headlines and the opening paragraphs of articles. Some examples: “Start spreading the news: CBS is launching a third ‘CSI’ to be based in Gotham” (16 Jan 2004, p. 1); “It’s official: J.Fo will pair with J.Lo” (16 Jan 2004, p. 5, a reference to Jane Fonda and Jennifer Lopez); and “ABC latenight host Jimmy Kimmel has snagged a silver bullet—Coors Light” (16 Jan 2004, p. 14).

Other examples include the headline “A WING-DING FOR ‘THE KING’” and the sentence “‘King’ has zing,” references to the movie “Return of the King” (28 Jan 2004, p. 1). “Disney gloves Gallic pitch” (28 Jan 2004, p. 5) uses baseball imagery to headline an article about Disney obtaining the rights to a story idea, or pitch. “FIRMS CRASH ‘DANCE” (16 Jan 2004, p. 5) is a headline about corporations sponsoring the Sundance independent film festival. And ‘Nip/Tuck,’ a TV drama about plastic surgeons, earns this headline about its success in Britain, “FX’s ‘Nip’ firms up Sky’s flabby ratings” (15 Jan 2004, p. 13).

A second technique is to omit “a,” “an,” and “the,” especially at the beginning of sentences. This gives Variety’s articles a staccato, rapid pace that fits well with the fast-paced and ever-changing aura of Hollywood. Two examples: “Pic is being readied for a 2005 holiday release” and “Project comes from Touchstone TV and Gibson’s Icon Prods” (28 Jan 2004, p. 5).

The last and largest element in Variety’s style is the jargon or slang that it employs. The paper deploys a bewildering array of jargon terms without explanation or aid to the neophyte reader.

The inventive nature of Variety’s slang is well documented. The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition, includes some twenty-odd entries whose initial citations are from the magazine. These include: boffo (12 May 1943); fave, a clipping of favorite (16 Mar 1938); featurette (28 Jan 1942); Grammy, the musical award (30 Sep 1959); juve, a youth (17 Apr 1935); kitchenette (7 May 1910); nabe, a clipping of neighborhood (14 Feb 1933); nance, an effeminate or gay man (6 Aug 1910); nite (13 Jan 1928); payola (19 Oct 1938); pix (19 Jul 1932); punch line (25 Nov 1921); shim, a blend of she and him, meaning a transvestite or transsexual (19 Feb 1975); shoot-‘em-up (11 Feb 1953); small time (30 Apr 1910); strip and tease (1 Oct 1930), strip teaser (26 Nov 1930), and strip tease (2 Dec 1936); the use of wow as a verb (24 Dec 1924); and, quite aptly, show biz (13 Jun 1945).

But Variety’s slanguage goes well beyond these terms that have made their way into the general vocabulary of the nation. Daily, it uses arcane jargon terms both from the entertainment industry and unique to the paper itself. The meanings of some of these terms are often not immediately obvious to the casual reader. One such is the verb to ankle to mean to quit or leave; “a successful guest-hosting stint on Jack Benny’s radio show led to an offer to host ‘The Tonight Show’ when the show’s first host, Steve Allen, ankled” (28 Jan 2004, p. 2). Another Variety verb is to pact, meaning to sign a contract; “the studio has already pacted with NBC for a drama series” (16 Sep 2003, p. 1). There is also to front, meaning to host; “way out ahead of the game is ‘American Idol’ host Ryan Seacrest, fronting a gabber that began Monday” (16 Jan 2004, p. 38). The paper’s slanguage is not limited to verbs. The adjective legit is used to denote live theater, after the phrase the legitimate theater; “Schumacher described what they wanted in their legit Poppins” (28 Jan 2004, p. 14). The paper even carries a regular column reviewing the stage titled “Legit Review.”

Other terms in Variety’s slanguage are more obvious. Famous people are celebs, most of whom seek to topline, or star in, a movie or show; “Bernsen [...] has tapped ‘General Hospital’ star Kim Shriner to topline the pic” (6 Feb 2004, p. 11). A film is a pic, plural pix, and a performance is a perf. The verb says is often spelled sez; “Robert Vaughn sez they were shooting the ‘Hustler’ series” (16 Sep 2003, p. 4). Business becomes biz and the biz is, of course, show business. Femme is used as both an adjective and a noun for female; “‘Heart’ will revolve around the femme lead coming to a Los Angeles performing arts academy” (16 Jan 2004, p. 7); “‘Reba,’ [...] was strongest among femmes 12-34 (2.3/9), placing third for the hour” (16 Sep 2003, p. 6). And terrific is clipped to terrif; “The New Line toppers told me they’ve received terrif test screenings of ‘The Lord of the Rings’” (16 Sep 2003, p. 4).

Other clippings include names for entertainment centers in Los Angeles and New York. Hollywood becomes H’w’d and Beverly Hills is BevHills. Similarly, on the East Coast, Broadway becomes B’way and New York is known as Gotham; “the harried homemaker’s federal trial in Gotham” (28 Jan 2004, p. 6).

To Be Continued...

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