At The Shows

In the summer, when I was a teenager, there would be a collection of fairground rides set up in the car park by the pier in Helensburgh.  These were universally referred to as ‘The Shows’, as in ‘I’m away down the road to the shows to meet my friends.’

We didn’t always go on the rides, but if we did my favourites were the dodgems and the waltzer.  As we were usually a group of smart mouthed girls, the lads whose job it was the spin the cars on the waltzer would afford us special attention, and we would emerge spun to near sickness with the world still moving around us for several minutes afterwards.

I often wondered how the name had come about; why it was always The Shows, and not the funfair or amusements.  In most other circumstances I would have associated the idea of a ‘show’, with a Broadway musical or Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in one of their movies where ne or other of them was required to say the line ‘Let’s put on a show!’  A few rickety rides didn’t quite match up to that level of glamour.

This morning I watched the episode of  The BBC’s ‘Who do you think you are?‘ on the actor Larry Lamb.  As part of his story he found out that his grandfather was identified on his marriage certificate and in various Censuses as a ‘Showman’  According to the historians interviewed, this meant a person who had a travelling show or menagerie.

So rather than being a weird Helensburgh only nomenclature, ‘The Shows’ has an etymological link to their roots as part of a Showman’s business.

I was then fascinated to discover that in my Oxford Dictionary the definition of ‘Showman’ is ‘proprietor or manager of a menagerie or other such show’, because I’d always thought of it much more generally as someone who would put on a show, a Florenz Zeigfeld, or perhaps, in more modern times, a Simon Cowell.  (No wait a minute, a ‘menagerie’ could be the perfect description of the SC world).

Of course, once the dictionary’s open I have to read all of the definitions.  It’s both a transitive verb and a noun, between ‘shoveller’ ( a duck with a broad shovel like beak) and ‘shower’ (brief fall of rain, hail, sleet, or snow, or of arrows, bullets, water, dust, stones etc).

My favourite composite word was ‘showgirl’: actress whose role is decorative rather than histrionic.

What crimes the history of language commits – a showman can be a proprietor, but his girl is merely decorative.

That’s quite a show-stopper.

Leave a comment


  1. “a showman can be a proprietor, but his girl is merely decorative.”


    Females get a raw deal. The structure of our society simply refuses to accept strong and smart women and just won’t pay ’em the same as blokes.

    In the most visible profession, they are continually used as decoration in movies, while male actors of lesser talents hoover up all the money, fame and screen-time. Look at the house of commons, utterly male dominated. The best M.P. I ever had was a woman, Sandra Gidley.

    In real life, women take on a larger and larger role, at which they generally give men a real dusting. They’re smarter, work harder and are mostly easier to deal with. They still get to do 90% of housework and baby raising, still expected to work hard and bring home substantial salaries.

    Feminism has some work to do, getting the language to operate correctly would be a good place to start.

    PS, you really shouldn’t mention Simon C***** in a decent blog. Lowers the tone.Tsk, Tsk!


    • Thanks Brendan. Of course I agree with your observations! …….Sorry if I lowered the tone, but I only mentioned SC so I could make the link to menageries…… Rowena


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