DEA BIRKETT But seriously – welcome!

In the latest in her series marking the 250th anniversary of the circus, Dea Birkett – the official Ringmaster of Circus250 – finds that media misuse of circus language shows disrespect of a gentle art

Roll up! Roll up! That’s one of the best known phrases in the English language - the familiar call to gather together at the entrance to a circus performance.

What other art form is instantly recognised by an invitation that’s so inclusive? Can you think of such a welcoming phrase that’s used at the theatre or before a classical music concert? There isn’t one. Or can you imagine a booted and buttoned barker outside the Royal Opera House shouting “Roll up! Roll up!” You’ll titter at the image, it’s so ridiculous. Only circus is known for a call that warmly welcomes everyone in.

But the language of circus is more likely to be used in ridicule, particularly by the press in respect to politics and politicians, rather than recognition of its fabulous inclusivity. David Konyot (pictured) recently wrote a letter to The Guardian complaining about that paper using his profession as an insult.

“I am a prize-winning international musical clown, part of an honourable profession, and am deeply offended by the misuse and misrepresentation of ‘clown’ in connection with parliamentary or other forms of chaotic behaviour” he wrote. “Unlike the comparison the press constantly draws, a clown or indeed a circus must be orderly and efficient to work properly.”

Konyot is, of course, correct. Describing something as a “circus” or someone as a “clown” when it’s all going wrong completely misrepresents both. But what the constant, if inaccurate, use of these words reveals is that circus is embedded in our language and conversation. We grow up with circus words.

Many more have also travelled through the circus world of words, words that have been tweaked and made popular by it. “Geek” is one of these - an old English word meaning freak, imported via the German word geckthat could also mean fool, silly and a bit mad. In the 19thcentury, circuses used to advertise their “geeks” as their human attractions in “geek shows”.

Chris Barltrop, author and performer of a one-man show on the founder of circus Audacious Mr Astley, points out: “Circus-connected words are part of everyday speech - jumbo, leotard, ring-fenced, ringmaster” - you don’t have to leap through hoops to include these in your writing. In order to correct misuse by the media of circus terms, Barltrop has compiled a “How to Say Circus” guide for the press.

Not everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon. When Circus250 put Roll up! Roll up!in a media communication, we were criticised by a contemporary circus company for using outdated language. But what is there to replace this familiar and inclusive call? Without its unique warm welcome, circus could retreat into the same place in which theatre and opera finds itself, being seen as distant and struggling to get more diverse audiences 

We don’t have to walk a tightrope between adopting popular language and producing excellent art. We can use fabulous circus language to entice audiences in to our performances. Because real circus happens in rings, theatres, tents, museums, schools, streets and parks. Not in parliament.

How To Say Circus

Audacious Mr Astley




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