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12 Head-Scratching Terms Heard on Film Sets

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Fox Photos/Getty Images

With countless websites dedicated to movie trivia, DVD special features offering behind-the-scenes looks, and even photos “leaked” by the stars themselves on social media, the once-mystifying inner-workings of Hollywood, and its movie magic, have become increasingly transparent over the last couple of decades. Having said that, step onto a working film set and you’ll soon realize that you are indeed in another world—one full of protocols, job titles, and lingo that can elude even the most seasoned cineaste. Below are 12 head-scratching terms that are frequently heard on film sets.

1. C-47

The C-47 is a versatile tool found on every film set. Its most frequent use is helping secure colored gels or diffusion onto the fronts of lights. Its non-Hollywood name? The clothespin. Although there is no definitive answer as to how the clothespin came to be known as the C-47, several theories persist: an homage to the C-47 transportation plane utilized during WWII, a reference to an early patent number for clothespins, and even a storage method at an old film studio (which supposedly kept clothespins shelved in row C, slot 47). But the most commonly shared story is that in the early days of filmmaking, executives would regularly rebuke a lighting team for including a budget for clothespins, as they didn’t want to front money for such an everyday item. But those same executives gladly accepted the modified expense reports, which instead included requests for the mysterious—yet highly technical-sounding—C-47.

2. STINGER

Nothing sets the amateurs apart from the professionals on a set faster than those individuals who ask for extension cords, which are referred to as “stingers.” The stinger likely received its Hollywood name early on when it was realized that if there was a malfunction, the electrical shock would, well, sting.

3. GREEK

The phrase “It’s all Greek to me” serves as the basis for the name of an important process that happens before shooting begins: “Greeking” is the art department's process of removing branding from any products that will be appearing on screen, but where the company hasn’t paid for product placement. It can be as simple as placing a piece of black tape over part of the product’s name, thus allowing the prop to be used without being a direct representation or promotion of the product itself. If you look carefully, you might find some of your favorite TV characters using “ial” soap, eating their favorite “eerios” cereal, or using laptops with stickers conveniently placed over recognizable logos.

4. PANCAKE

Although most crew members wish it did, a request for a “pancake” does not bring a syrup-doused breakfast treat to the set. A pancake is the nickname given to the smallest and thinnest box in the apple box family. Typically a one-inch thick piece of wood, it boasts an endless variety of uses including the leveling of stands, protecting electrical cables from damp ground, and even boosting an actor’s height (although the bigger apple boxes are more common for this).

5. STICKS

The director of photography might announce that the next shot will be on “sticks,” which is another name for a tripod.

6. EYEBROW

If the camera is the all-seeing eye on a film set, then it makes sense that the black “visor” placed above the lens is nicknamed the eyebrow. The eyebrow is used to help prevent any unwanted glare on the lens, which might create a flare (we’re looking at you J.J. Abrams).

7. LOCK-UPS

It is common for the 1st assistant director to yell for the PAs to get to their “lock-ups” right before a take. “Lock-ups” are strategic positions throughout the set where there is the potential for an accidental disruption. Doorways, hallways, blind corners, etc. are all guarded, or “locked up,” to prevent non-cast members from accidentally strolling into the shot or making noise.

8. HOT POINTS

Mixing heavy, expensive, and sometimes “pointy” film equipment with large crowds of focused filmmakers can be the perfect recipe for an injury. To prevent this, crew members carrying such gear into confined or crowded spaces often yell “hot points!” as a reminder for all to clear a space.

9. MOS

MOS is a term most relevant to the sound department. When a shot is MOS, it means that no audio will be recorded. For these shots, the audio will be addressed in post-production, most likely with pre-recorded sound effects or music. There are a plethora of theories as to how the term came about, but three fight to the forefront: Some argue that MOS equates to an abbreviated version of “motion omit sound” or “motor only shot,” a reference to the synchronization between film cameras and audio (as audio is recorded on a separate device). In an MOS shot, only the motor of the camera would run, hence “motor only shot.” The other, more widespread theory is explained by David Trottier in The Screenwriter’s Bible: “German director Eric von Stroheim ... would tell his crew, ‘Ve’ll shoot dis mid out sound.’ Thus MOS stands for ‘mid out sound.’”

10. MOTHER-DAUGHTER

This less-than-politically-correct term can sometimes be heard among the more jocular crew members. It refers to shooting the same action again, but with a tighter framing than the previous take. This is accomplished by either moving the camera closer or by using a different lens. You’ll have to read between the lines for how this one got its name (we’ve said enough).

11. THE ABBY SINGER SHOT

Abby Singer was a 1st assistant director and production manager who was known for informing his crew when the second-to-last shot for a particular location, or for the day, was taking place. This gave the crew time to either transport the equipment not in use to the next location, or to put it away. By doing so, he saved the crew the stress of hurrying to the next location, not to mention priceless production time that could be better spent later on. Having passed away in early 2014, Singer's legacy continues through his namesake being synonymous for the second-to-last shot of the day.

12. THE MARTINI SHOT

The crew will collectively sigh when the Martini shot is announced, as it signifies the last shot of the day. This nickname likely originates from a joke about what the following shot will be ... at the bar.

Additional Sources:
Strike the Baby and Kill the Blonde: An Insider's Guide to Film Slang, by Dave Knox
The Screenwriter's Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script, by David Trottier

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The Curious Origins of 16 Common Phrases
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Our favorite basketball writer is ESPN's Zach Lowe. On his podcast, the conversation often takes detours into the origins of certain phrases. We compiled a list from Zach and added a few of our own, then sent them to language expert Arika Okrent. Where do these expressions come from anyway?

1. BY THE SAME TOKEN

Bus token? Game token? What kind of token is involved here? Token is a very old word, referring to something that’s a symbol or sign of something else. It could be a pat on the back as a token, or sign, of friendship, or a marked piece of lead that could be exchanged for money. It came to mean a fact or piece of evidence that could be used as proof. “By the same token” first meant, basically “those things you used to prove that can also be used to prove this.” It was later weakened into the expression that just says “these two things are somehow associated.”

2. GET ON A SOAPBOX

1944: A woman standing on a soapbox speaking into a mic
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The soapbox that people mount when they “get on a soapbox” is actually a soap box, or rather, one of the big crates that used to hold shipments of soap in the late 1800s. Would-be motivators of crowds would use them to stand on as makeshift podiums to make proclamations, speeches, or sales pitches. The soap box then became a metaphor for spontaneous speech making or getting on a roll about a favorite topic.

3. TOMFOOLERY

The notion of Tom fool goes a long way. It was the term for a foolish person as long ago as the Middle Ages (Thomas fatuus in Latin). Much in the way the names in the expression Tom, Dick, and Harry are used to mean “some generic guys,” Tom fool was the generic fool, with the added implication that he was a particularly absurd one. So the word tomfoolery suggested an incidence of foolishness that went a bit beyond mere foolery.

4. GO BANANAS

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The expression “go bananas” is slang, and the origin is a bit harder to pin down. It became popular in the 1950s, around the same time as “go ape,” so there may have been some association between apes, bananas, and crazy behavior. Also, banana is just a funny-sounding word. In the 1920s people said “banana oil!” to mean “nonsense!”

5. RUN OF THE MILL

If something is run of the mill, it’s average, ordinary, nothing special. But what does it have to do with milling? It most likely originally referred to a run from a textile mill. It’s the stuff that’s just been manufactured, before it’s been decorated or embellished. There were related phrases like “run of the mine,” for chunks of coal that hadn’t been sorted by size yet, and “run of the kiln,” for bricks as they came out without being sorted for quality yet.

6. READ THE RIOT ACT

The Law's Delay: Reading The Riot Act 1820
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When you read someone the riot act you give a stern warning, but what is it that you would you have been reading? The Riot Act was a British law passed in 1714 to prevent riots. It went into effect only when read aloud by an official. If too many people were gathering and looking ready for trouble, an officer would let them know that if they didn’t disperse, they would face punishment.

7. HANDS DOWN

Hands down comes from horse racing, where, if you’re way ahead of everyone else, you can relax your grip on the reins and let your hands down. When you win hands down, you win easily.

8. SILVER LINING

The silver lining is the optimistic part of what might otherwise be gloomy. The expression can be traced back directly to a line from Milton about a dark cloud revealing a silver lining, or halo of bright sun behind the gloom. The idea became part of literature and part of the culture, giving us the proverb “every cloud has a silver lining” in the mid-1800s.

9. HAVE YOUR WORK CUT OUT

The expression “you’ve got your work cut out for you” comes from tailoring. To do a big sewing job, all the pieces of fabric are cut out before they get sewn together. It seems like if your work has been cut for you, it should make job easier, but we don’t use the expression that way. The image is more that your task is well defined and ready to be tackled, but all the difficult parts are yours to get to. That big pile of cut-outs isn’t going to sew itself together!

10. THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE

A grapevine is a system of twisty tendrils going from cluster to cluster. The communication grapevine was first mentioned in 1850s, the telegraph era. Where the telegraph was a straight line of communication from one person to another, the “grapevine telegraph” was a message passed from person to person, with some likely twists along the way.

11. THE WHOLE SHEBANG

The earliest uses of shebang were during the Civil War era, referring to a hut, shed, or cluster of bushes where you’re staying. Some officers wrote home about “running the shebang,” meaning the encampment. The origin of the word is obscure, but because it also applied to a tavern or drinking place, it may go back to the Irish word shebeen for a ramshackle drinking establishment.

12. PUSH THE ENVELOPE

Pushing the envelope belongs to the modern era of the airplane. The “flight envelope” is a term from aeronautics meaning the boundary or limit of performance of a flight object. The envelope can be described in terms of mathematical curves based on things like speed, thrust, and atmosphere. You push it as far as you can in order to discover what the limits are. Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff brought the expression into wider use.

13. CAN’T HOLD A CANDLE

We say someone can’t hold a candle to someone else when their skills don’t even come close to being as good. In other words, that person isn’t even good enough to hold up a candle so that a talented person can see what they’re doing in order to work. Holding the candle to light a workspace would have been the job of an assistant, so it’s a way of saying not even fit to be the assistant, much less the artist.

14. THE ACID TEST

Most acids dissolve other metals much more quickly than gold, so using acid on a metallic substance became a way for gold prospectors to see if it contained gold. If you pass the acid test, you didn’t dissolve—you’re the real thing.

15. GO HAYWIRE

What kind of wire is haywire? Just what it says—a wire for baling hay. In addition to tying up bundles, haywire was used to fix and hold things together in a makeshift way, so a dumpy, patched-up place came to be referred to as “a hay-wire outfit.” It then became a term for any kind of malfunctioning thing. The fact that the wire itself got easily tangled when unspooled contributed to the “messed up” sense of the word.

16. CALLED ON THE CARPET

Carpet used to mean a thick cloth that could be placed in a range of places: on the floor, on the bed, on a table. The floor carpet is the one we use most now, so the image most people associate with this phrase is one where a servant or employee is called from plainer, carpetless room to the fancier, carpeted part of the house. But it actually goes back to the tablecloth meaning. When there was an issue up for discussion by some kind of official council it was “on the carpet.”

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From Snoopy to Shark Bait: The Top Slang Word in Each State
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There’s a minute, and then there’s a hot minute. Defined as “a longish amount of time,” this unit of time is familiar to Alabamians but may stir up confusion beyond the state’s borders.

It’s Louisianans, though, who feel the “most misunderstood,” according to the results of a survey regarding regional slang by PlayNJ. Of the Louisiana residents surveyed, 72 percent said their fellow Americans from other states—even neighboring ones—have a hard time grasping their lingo. Some learned the hard way that ordering a burger “dressed” (with lettuce, tomato, pickles, and mayo) isn’t universally understood, nor is the phrase “to pass a good time” (instead of “to have” a good time).

After surveying 2000 people (with proportional numbers from each state), PlayNJ created a map showing the top slang word in each state. Many are words that are unlikely to be understood beyond state lines, but others—like California’s bomb (something you really like) and New York’s deadass (to be completely serious)—have spread well beyond their respective borders thanks to memes and internet culture.

Hawaiians are also known for their distinctive slang words, with 71 percent reporting that words like shaka (hello) and poho (waste of time) are frequently misunderstood. Shark bait, one of the state’s more colorful terms, refers to tourists who are so pale that they attract sharks.

Check out the full list below and test your knowledge of regional slang words with PlayNJ’s online quiz.

A chart showing the top slang words in each state
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