A Boffo B-Roll – Linguistics in Hollywood

19 04 2012

An Abby Singer. Points. Upfronts. Residuals.  Chances are, if you’re reading this you know what these words mean; if you don’t – well, that’s sort of the point.  When people ask what makes the people who work in the entertainment industry a culture (in the anthropological sense), I point out that they have their own language.  Or rather, in a technical sense, not their own language, but their own dialect.  A dialect is a specific subset of a language, used by people in a “discourse community.” This is an (admittedly imprecise) term that means, basically, people who use the same dialect.  Speech communities can be based on geographic region, socio-economic class, ethnicity – or in this case, profession.

There’s a lot to write about language in the industry (including what we mean by “the industry”); and this entry is just the beginning of a discussion on linguistic aspects of Hollywood culture.  But when we speak about language, one of the primary markers of a local dialect is the presumption that other locals know.  For example, check out the billboard pictured below:

anthropology of Hollywood

Do you know what an upfront is? The person who paid for this billboard is betting that you do.

“WE LOOK GOOD IN AN UPFRONT – even if you don’t know what an upfront is.”  Now, whoever paid a lot of money to put that billboard up on Wilshire blvd is aiming it at people who clearly do know what an upfront is – otherwise, why advertise to them?  But by adding the tagline “even if you don’t know…” they imply to those viewers that they are part of a privileged in-group, people in the know who understand the specialized dialect of the industry.  They’re saying that if you know local dialect, like the difference between Above-the-Line and Below-the-Line (and on which side of the line you stand) – then congratulations, you’re one of the cool kids.

But defining group identity is just one of the effect of language; specialized language – or jargon, if you prefer – is actually handy to people doing their jobs.  One of the most common forms of local language is in the specialized professions of production.  Each of the professions involved in production has their own set of terms; a professional language, technically called a “cant.”  Sometimes when I talk to a friend who works cameras, for example, I can barely understand him.  In Hollywood, even the names for the jobs themselves have meaning only to those who already live and work here: gaffers, grips, and show runners, for example. And how many people in Poughkeepsie know what a production designer does?

Finally, the trades (another local term) are also famous for their use of specialized language.  The best-known example may be the famous Variety headline “Sticks Nix Hick Pix” – that is, people in rural areas aren’t going to see movies about rural life.  Variety also routinely uses terms like boffo, payola, and skein, and provides a dictionary of self-titled “slanguage” online.  Similarly, in its’ official history, The Hollywood Reporter proudly trumpets its use of localized language back in the day  (“Studios were referred to as ‘the plant.’ Directors would sign on to ‘megaphone’ a picture.”)

anthropology of Hollywood

The famous headline (in 1935, Variety cost 15 cents – and was published in New York)

Linguists believe that the way we speak influences the way we think.  I’m not sure what that means for the speech community using the local dialect we’re talking about here (that they want everything to be boffo?  That they see an actual line dividing workers in different parts of a production?); maybe it means that Southern Californians should have twenty different words to mean “70 degrees and sunny weather.”

(by the way – it’s not true that Eskimos have twenty words for snow)

— Scott Frank

  • Two exhaustive collections of the dialect of the entertainment industry can been found in Movie Speak: How to Talk Like You Belong on a Movie Set by Tony Bill (a producer) and Strike the Baby and Kill the Blonde: And Insider’s Guide to Film Slang by Dave Knox (a camera operator).  Actually, it’d be interesting to compare the two in-depth, to see the differences in dialect from people with different jobs in the industry.
  • For a more academic look at the language of different professions, you can look for the work of linguist Roger Shuy (he’s written about the language employed by lawyers, doctors, and other professionals).
  • People keep asking what an upfront is, so: upfronts are presentations that networks hold for advertisers, in order to convince them to purchase air time for ads.  They have also become the de-facto place for major networks to unveil their lineup of programs; so often it’s the first place where a shows’ future (renewal or cancellation) is confirmed.
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2 responses

21 04 2012
merrilyndatta

Cool. I think you could do a whole blog just on the lingo….

22 04 2012
hsapien

Thanks! It’d be very easy to fill a post (or ten) just on the local dialect terms…I should definitely include a glossary of what the terms I used in this post were.

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