Peter Bart: Donald Trump Looked To Slanguage To Keep Up With Showbiz; Now, He’s Ankled

He is still stalling, but the bottom line is that Donald Trump is ankling his job. For the uninitiated, “ankling” is Variety “slanguage” for getting fired, as Trump knows well. Trump has often boasted that his rallies were “boffo,” called his speeches “blurbs” and demonstrated a keen attraction for “thesps.” Indeed, his presidency has long been a reality show, which suits his qualifications.

At a banquet some years ago, Trump even alluded to the legendary “sticks” headline (“Sticks Nix Hick Pix”). He had no idea what the headline meant (no one does), but I sensed he understood the importance of the “sticks” since he shaped his politics with them in mind. What he couldn’t know was that his presidential term would best be described by another Variety banner: ”Wall Street Lays An Egg.” In the end, so did Trump.

Trump felt free to cite Variety slanguage to me because he knew I was its editor in chief at the time (Deadline is a sister publication in the Penske Media Group). Coveting media attention, Trump was so meticulous about knowing editors and columnists that he never needed to retain a “praisery” or even a “tenpercentery” for guidance (slanguage for publicist and talent agent, respectively).

Trump’s fondness for the term “boffo” recently prompted a Wall Street Journal analyst to trace the word back to the Italian buffare, or “to buff up” (“buffoon” might have had a similar derivation). To my knowledge, however, there has never been a scholarly analysis of the roots of “slanguage,” but browsing through 1905 issues of Variety leads a reader to suspect that its writers were Broadway characters. They called themselves “muggs,” wrote “street talk” and even had “street” bylines.

Its early theater critic was a large, intimidating guy with a broken nose named Jack Pulaski, and he and other critics signed their critiques as “Dash” or “Rush,” or, in the case of its founder, “Sime” (his full name was Sime Silverman). Its most prolific headline writer was a former trolley conductor named Jack Conway.

Sime loved Broadway because ”it was rough, rowdy and masculine – champagne one day and crumbs the next,” explained Dayton Stoddart, his biographer. Slanguage even referenced street characters in the news: A show “brodied” when it collapsed after opening night, thanks to an actor named Steve Brodie who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge.

In due course, slanguage infiltrated Variety headlines, often rendering them obscure. In the 1930s, the resurgence of silent films (thanks mainly to Charlie Chaplin) prompted the banner “Sound Films Shy Silent Sums.”

If Variety prose bordered on the arcane (critic H.L. Mencken described it as “barbarous”) it also lent its readers a sense of being “inside.” William Goldman, the famed screenwriter, told me that he followed Variety faithfully while growing up in Chicago because “it made me feel like a member of the club.”

Wilfred Funke, editor of the Literary Digest, honored Sime Silverman as being one of the 10 most important Americans responsible for “keeping American jargon alive.” Words like “whodunit,” “hokum,” “hoofer” and “palooka” were attributed to Variety, but no in-house historian ever analyzed why hicks disdained certain pix. Or, for that matter, why people like Donald Trump “ankled” instead of simply left. An old reader like Trump might have been interested.

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