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Language of Showbiz

The show business trade paper Variety turns 100 this year, and it 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 -- that is, if the right people are talking about a film, so it keeps drawing crowds. Reporter Gloria Hillard, filling in this week for our Wordmasters, has more:

GH: 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 showbiz 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.

TIM GRAY: "If you don't read Variety every day, it's like learning a foreign language."

As executive editor of Variety, Tim Gray is a walking dictionary of showbiz speak, or Variety slanguage.

TIM GRAY: "There is a certain amount of silly fun in slanguage 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'w'd [pronounced H-wood], 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.

TIM GRAY: "Somebody ankles their job 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. Personally, boffo is my favorite word."

GH: "Which means?"

TIM GRAY: "Terrific. Whammo is the absolute best it can be. The sixth 'Star Wars' movie is going to be whammo at the box office."

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:

TIM 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 showbiz.


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.

MICHAEL KASSAN: "Hmmm, Killer turned for Hunt. Killer Films is a production company and [actress] Helen Hunt is going to do a film for them."

OK, let's try one more: PILOTS READY FOR TAKE-OFF.

MICHAEL KASSAN: "It's a story about TV shows. And TV shows prepared for series are called pilots."

Clearly this crowd speaks the language. OK, heading east on Sunset, let's try the Variety headline test at the famed tourist spot Grauman's Chinese Theater. These three women are from Orlando Florida.

WOMEN: "Pilots ready for takeoff -- a movie? I have no idea."

OK, here's another: MOUSE MEN SET SAIL.

WOMEN: "Mouse men set sail. Let me see ... no, no, nope. [laughter]"

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 showbiz, the Hollywood Dictionary, a glossary of some 200 terms, will be published this fall.

For Wordmaster, I'm Gloria Hillard in Hollywood.

MUSIC: "Variety Speak"/Animaniacs