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16 (Not-So-Scary) Clowning Terms, Unmasked

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Between Pennywise and Twisty, clowns have gotten a bad rap. Although we have every right to be afraid of them, you might be surprised to know that they haven't always been horror movie material. The art of clowning has a long and rich tradition and history, from Pygmy clowns in ancient Egypt to court jesters in medieval Europe to annoying French mimes. Here are 16 terms to help you get to know clowns beyond their evil grins.


A sentimental, white-faced clown, the pierrot is named for a 17th-century stock character in French pantomime. His costume is loose and white and includes a giant neck ruffle. The pierrot is considered in some circles to be top clown.


Often paired with the pierrot, the harlequin is a clown of “mischievous intrigue,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). She is recognizable by her floppy hat, often with bells on it, and diamond-patterned tights. One famous harlequin (aside from DC Comics' puntastic Harley Quinn) is Pablo Picasso, who is said to have inserted himself into his paintings disguised as the court jester-like clown.

Like the pierrot, the harlequin is named after a stock character, this time from the Italian commedia dell'arte, a kind of improvised playacting that began in the 16th century. The name Harlicken might ultimately come from the Old French word for the leader of la maisnie Hellequin, a gang of demons who flew through the night on horseback.


This slang term for a clown was coined by Pygmalion playwright George Bernard Shaw and is named for famed 18th-century English performer Joseph Grimaldi. Grimaldi's tragic life belied his comedic antics. Due to the “extraordinary physical demands” of clowning, Grimaldi suffered so from arthritis and “digestive ailments” that he was forced to retire at 45.

Later, Grimaldi’s son, who had also gotten into clowning, died at 30. J.S., as he was known, was an alcoholic who suffered from epileptic seizures. Some suspected he had either been poisoned or had died as a result of injuries from a fight. Not long after, Grimaldi’s wife passed away, and three years later, Grimaldi himself, by then an impoverished and depressed alcoholic, died at 58.


Joseph Grimaldi might have been the most famous of white or whiteface clowns. Perhaps coming from the tradition of the pierrot, the whiteface is the ringleader of the clown posse. His makeup comes in three variations: European, neat, and grotesque. The European style, which was Joseph Grimaldi's, seems to most resemble the pierrot’s—delicate and not too exaggerated. Neat is similar to European, only slightly more exaggerated, while the grotesque’s makeup style is highly exaggerated. Think Bozo and Ronald McDonald.


Playing second banana to the whiteface, the Auguste is wild, clumsy, and kind of innocent. The word Auguste is French in origin, but aside from that, where it comes from is unclear. One theory is that an opposite sense arose of the word august, which means majestic, stately, or revered. However, “evidence is lacking,” according to the OED.


The character clown is the lowest on the clown totem pole and can take on almost any persona. The earliest characters clowns were the Happy Hobo and the Sad Tramp. One of the most renowned of the tramp clowns was the German-born Otto Griebling, who performed with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.


Originally a solo Auguste who performed between acts, the carpet clown now refers to any “fill in” clown. Why carpet? Apparently one of the carpet clown's original duties was to lay out the carpeting for bareback riders.


The term business describes the individual movements of a clown. Gags are short jokes clowns play on each other—if repeated, the joke becomes a running gag—while bits are made up of gags.


The entree is made up of bits and gags, and may involve several clowns and a beginning, middle, and an end. A side dish is a shorter version of an entree.


The blow-off is the end of a gag, bit, entree, or side dish. Popular blow-offs include a thrown bucket of confetti, the pants drop, and the clown exit.


While props and rigging are changed, various clowns, including the carpet variety, keep the audience entertained by performing clown stops, which are brief gags and bits.


In a clown walk-around, all the clowns come out to promenade around the circus ring, occasionally stopping to perform tricks for the audience.


What’s a group of clowns called? No, not a horror. A clown alley is a troupe of clowns who perform together regularly. There are a couple of theories for the origin of the term. One is that it’s named for the out of the way, alley-like place where clowns were exiled to put on their potentially messy makeup. Another is that it comes from the Franglish phrase, “Clowns, allez!” or "Clown, go!" which the circus director would shout when it was time to send in the clowns.

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Let Alexa Help You Brine a Turkey This Thanksgiving
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There’s a reason most of us only cook turkey once a year: The bird is notoriously easy to overcook. You could rely on gravy and cranberry sauce to salvage your dried-out turkey this Thanksgiving, or you could follow cooking advice from the experts.

Brining a turkey is the best way to guarantee it retains its moisture after hours in the oven. The process is also time-consuming, so do yourself a favor this year and let Alexa be your sous chef.

“Morton Brine Time” is a new skill from the cloud-based home assistant. If you own an Amazon Echo you can download it for free by going online or by asking Alexa to enable it. Once it’s set up, start asking Alexa for brining tips and step-by-step recipes customized to the size of your turkey. Two recipes were developed by Richard Blais, the celebrity chef and restaurateur best known for his Top Chef win and Food Network appearances.

Whether you go for a wet brine (soaking your turkey in water, salt, sugar, and spices) or a dry one (just salt and spices), the process isn’t as intimidating as it sounds. And the knowledge that your bird will come out succulent and juicy will definitely take some stress out of the holiday.

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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.


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