"Dingbat," I said to Scott Pierce, our television editor. "Edith," he responded. And so would you probably, not knowing (as Scott does) that there really is such a thing as a dingbat, and it is a printing term. How Archie Bunker of "All in the Family" ever got hold of it to refer to his wife, Edith, is anyone's guess, but it's got a great sound to it.
Communications - by which we mean such diverse areas as movies and newspapers, commercials and computers, actors and marketers - has its own colorful phrases and words.A dingbat, for one, is a typographical decoration, something like this: - or this: or this: It's also called a flubdub.
I knew that from somewhere along the way. But I had no idea how many specialized words there are in the field, until I came across a great book by Richard Weiner. It carries the rather prosaic title of "Webster's New World Dictionary of Media and Communications," which isn't something you'd reach for on a stormy night. That's too bad, because it's a delightful compilation, written with charm and wit and definitely IS something you would enjoy even if you aren't in the business.
Weiner admits in his foreword that he has loved the sound of communications words since his boyhood when his dad was a printer. He started compiling lists and explaining the words to his clients. Eventually that grew into a big private collection of words, which has now become this book.
Browsing through it, I found these gems:
- Ever wonder what the # is called? That's a hatch mark, and it indicates either space or the word "number". You can also call it a hatcher.
- A lot of printing terms begin with "China," which is appropriate, inasmuch as the Chinese were printing way before Western civilizations. A grease pencil that is bound with paper, which you unwind to expose the core, is called a China pencil and you use it to write instructions on film. And a china girl is a model shown in a series of film frames that are used as a color standard in color laboratories.
- English. You thought this was our mother tongue, but in TV or films it also refers to vertical flaps on lamps, as opposed to Chinese flaps, which are horizontal. In print, it's the name for 14 point type, which is type
- Every time I watch the film credits roll by I wonder what a gaffer is. It's the foreman of a stage crew, and in film or TV, it's the head electrician. The word, says Weiner, originated in the 16th century as an altered form of godfather or grandfather. In the last century in England, a gaffer was a foreman or overseer and a master glassblower.
- Best boy, in film, is the principal or first assistant to the chief electrician (the gaffer, remember?). "The term may have originated in the days when young laborers assembled for possible work in theaters and the gaffer called `Give me your best boy.' "
- We all know what an Oscar is. One version of how it got its name holds that the executive secretary of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences observed that the first figurines looked like his Uncle Oscar in Texas. There are other, similar versions, one involving Bette Davis.
- Inky dink is another great-sounding word. It refers to a small incandescent lamp (hence inky), generally with an enclosed 100-watt bulb or an unenclosed 200-watt bulb. Sometimes it's called a dinky ink, inky or dinky.
- Legs are big with communication types. A leg lady is slang for a chorus girl. A leg man is a reporter who gathers news and relays it to the writing and editing staff, or it could refer to someone who researches, runs errands or assists. Legs also can mean the staying power of a movie or other production - if the movie fizzles after a few weeks, it has weak legs.
- And we'll end with Alfred Hitchcock's singular contribution to the language: MacGuffin. The great master of suspense movies used this word to refer to an inanimate object in a motion picture around which considerable action revolves, often in mysteries. (The Maltese Falcon comes to mind.) But Richard Weiner, the compiler of the book, says the same concept is also referred to as a weenie or a wienie, which is a small weiner, or hot dog, held in front to tantalize. How appropriate!