A Century of 'Variety'-Speak Variety, the show business trade paper known for its punchy and playful language, celebrates its 100th birthday this year. Terms such as "striptease," "payola" and "soap opera" were coined in its pages, along with some boffo adjectives.
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A Century of 'Variety'-Speak

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A Century of 'Variety'-Speak

A Century of 'Variety'-Speak

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In 1935, the show business trade paper Variety ran its most famous headline: `Sticks Nix Hicks Pix.' In other words, farm movies were getting a thumb-down in rural America. The paper turns 100 this year and continues to vex and amuse readers with what staffers call slanguage. Gloria Hillard has the story.

Unidentified Man: Thank you very much.


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 Disney, don't feel bad.

Mr. TIM GRAY (Variety): If you don't read Variety every day, you know, listen, it's like learning a foreign language.

HILLARD: As executive editor of Variety, Tim Gray is a walking dictionary of show biz speak or Variety slanguage.

Mr. GRAY: There's a certain amount of silly fun in this language because sometimes people in show business take themselves very seriously.

HILLARD: So on the pages of Variety, it's not an awards show. It's a kudo cast. A director is a helmer. H Wood is short for Hollywood. Girlfriend is just GF. The letters NSG mean not so good and so on. There are even terms that have been created to be H Wood politically sensitive. For instance, no one is ever fired in Hollywood. That would be NSG. So instead one is simply ankled.

Mr. GRAY: Somebody ankles their job because the last thing you see as they walk out the door is their ankle because especially in Hollywood you don't want to say somebody was fired because they will call and say, `No, no, no. I quit. They didn't fire me,' and they say, `No, no, no. We fired him. Who is he kidding?' So that kind of stuff we use every day. Personally, `boffo' is my favorite word because it's fun to say.

HILLARD: Which means?

Mr. GRAY: Terrific. It's like whamo is the absolute best it can be. I mean, the sixth "Star Wars" movie is going to be whamo at the box office.

HILLARD: Somehow it's hard to imagine that even in Hollywood grown men and women might be using the word `boffo' in conversation. Still, says Gray...

Mr. GRAY: The Oxford English Dictionary has 20 words that it attributes to Variety. I mean, you know, that's kind of impressive, words like striptease and payola and soap opera that Variety coined and, you know, they've become part of the daily language.

HILLARD: Well, maybe we should do a field test. A couple of Varietys casually tucked under my arm serve as my passport to an industry insider lunch spot. Michael Cassin(ph) is an executive in the entertainment industry. Still this headline might stump him: `Killer Turned For Hunt.'

Mr. MICHAEL CASSIN: `Killer Turned For Hunt.' Killer Films is a production company and Helen Hunt is going to do a film for them.

HILLARD: Let's try this one: `Pilots Ready For Takeoff.'

Mr. CASSIN: It's a story about television shows that are prepared for series are called pilots.

HILLARD: 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 Theatre. These three women are from Orlando, Florida.

Unidentified Woman #1: `Pilots Ready For Takeoff.'

Unidentified Woman #2: A movie? I'm guessing. I'm trying to guess.

Unidentified Woman #3: I don't know.

HILLARD: How about this headline: `Mouse Men Set Sail.'

Unidentified Woman #1 and #2: (In unison) `Mouse Men Set Sail.'

Unidentified Woman #1: Let me see.

Unidentified Woman #2: OK.

Unidentified Woman #1: Well...

Unidentified Woman #2: No. No.

Unidentified Woman #3: Nope.

HILLARD: It was a story about two actors who signed on to a Disney film, probably a sea-going adventure. For those who want to learn show biz speak, Tim Gray's "The Hollywood Dictionary," a glossary of some 200 words, will be coming out in the fall. In the meantime, back at Variety's newsroom, they were having a headline meeting.

Unidentified Woman #4: Here's another headline that intrigues me, tell me what you don't like about it which would be: `Helmer's Guide To The Galaxy.'

HILLARD: It was a story about foreign directors. At another desk, someone was working on a story about the Eye Network. Tim Gray translates.

Mr. GRAY: CBS is the Eye Network. ABC is the Alphabet Network. NBC is the Peacock Network. Warner Bros. is the Frog.


Mr. GRAY: NPR is--I mean, it's the deity of radio shows. It's too sacred for us to even joke about.

HILLARD: Oh, come on, I know they secretly think it's just whamo.

For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard in Los Angeles.

LUDDEN: And you can find a dictionary of Variety slanguage by stopping by our boffo Web site npr.org.

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