Wrestling with words: the language of wrestling
That professional wrestling is more show than sport is an open secret today, but in its earlier years grapplers believed the business would die were the public to know the truth. That secrecy necessitated jargon designed to allow communication while keeping up the pretence – jargon that is now widely used by wrestlers and fans alike.
One source of wrestling terminology and language was the carnival circuit – which is where the idea of wrestlers being more concerned with drawing a crowd than winning a contest really took off. Carnival workers would surreptitiously mark particularly gullible customers with chalk so that other stallholders knew to fleece them. That developed into wrestlers and promoters using mark as a generic and often condescending term for fans who believed wrestling bouts to be competitive affairs.
The carnival also provided carny, a form of speech by which wrestlers could speak openly in front of civilians without being understood. Carny involved inserting an iz sound after syllables, hence spizeakizing cizarny quickly enough to be unintelligible to the untrained ear. While not widely practiced today, legendary grappler Hulk Hogan was recorded using the terminology when visiting his son in prison in 2007, while the leading WWE promotion briefly had a wrestler perform under the stage name Kizarny.
Heroes and villains
Other popular terms came from the pre-war movie scene. A wrestler portraying the hero role was known as a baby face, while a villainous performer was referred to behind the scenes as a heel. That’s a gangster movie term derived from down at heel, implying a man who was so down on his luck that his shoes were literally wearing apart, making it more likely he’d turn to crime.
While the roles of good guy and bad guy pro wrestlers are universal, the terminology did vary around the globe. British wrestlers often preferred the terms blue eye and villain while Mexico’s wrestling community describes the roles as technico and rudo, translating as ‘technical wrestler’ and ‘rough wrestler’.
Wrestling’s other great categorization, reality vs fiction, has its own terms. Something genuine is labelled a shoot, covering anything from a shooting match (a genuine contest) to a shoot interview (in which wrestlers discuss backstage politics rather than staying in character and talking about attempting to win matches). It derives from the amateur wrestling term to shoot, meaning to quickly reach down in an attempt to grab an opponent and pull him to the mat. In contrast, any predetermined action is a work, reflecting the idea that wrestlers are working together to put on a show.
The kayfabe factor
The sometimes blurry line between shoot and work is covered by the ultra-versatile kayfabe. It describes a concept, namely maintaining the illusion of wrestling as a legitimate contest. But it also serves as a multi-purpose term. By itself it could be shouted as a one-word warning that outsiders were present and wrestlers should immediately refrain from talking about the realities of the business. (British grapplers similarly used Queens as rhyming slang for Queens Park Rangers, warning of strangers.) It could also be descriptive: for example, a kayfabe manager was a character who came to ringside with a wrestler but was only pretending to offer advice and assistance to help them win.
While the secretive term is now widely known, its origins remain something of a mystery, perhaps because inherently it would rarely if ever be used in writing. Early theories that it derived from a person’s name have little evidence. Others have pondered whether it might be a particularly convoluted form of Pig Latin for ‘be fake’ or that it might come from keep cavey, a variant on cave for beware that was supposedly used by British public schoolboys.
More recently linguists have suggested it could in fact come from qui vive. French for ‘Who lives?’ or ‘Long live who?’, the term is said to have originally been used by French castle guards vetting visitors, with any response other than ‘Long live the King’ arousing suspicion.
Everything’s a gimmick
A similarly versatile wrestling word is gimmick, which can refer to meanings as diverse as:
- a wrestler’s persona
- a bout with unusual stipulations (such as the ring being surrounded by a chain-link fence)
- a supposed ‘weapon’ used by a villainous wrestler behind the referee’s back
- an item of branded merchandise
Meanwhile context is particularly important when determining whether a wrestler’s mention of juice refers to blood (shed to add drama to a bout) or anabolic steroids.
Sadly for mystery lovers, most wrestling insider terms are now well known by fans. Indeed, on occasions they are even used by promoters to try to fool an audience that dubs itself smart to the business into believing that a particular element of wrestling is indeed unscripted, such as having characters make the bogus claim on screen that “I’m going to shoot” before delivering a scripted dialogue full of insider terms.
Of course, it’s perfectly possible that wrestlers today have developed a new generation of secret terms that haven’t been made public. But if that’s the case, the only way any of us will find out is to get in the ring…