The great secret of success in anything is to get a hearing. Half the object is gained when the audience is assembled.
Phineas T. Barnum

Now that you're all here: it seems a suitable time to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of P. T. Barnum — a name that you probably don't associate with language in a particular way.

Like many prominent figures of the past, especially those who left a considerable written record as Barnum did, English does in fact owe him a substantial nod for his contributions. The Oxford English Dictionary credits him with the first print appearances of bandwagon and sideshow. The OED's first citation for big top is not by Barnum, but it is about his circus. Barnum's purchase of the elephant named Jumbo (from the London Zoo) and the elephant's subsequent fame – a direct result of Barnum's relentless promotion of him – have bequeathed us the adjective jumbo, to characterize a supersized person or thing. In addition, Barnum was the inspiration for two minor lexical items that enjoyed a vogue during his career and for some years after: the word Barnum itself, as a stand-in for "humbug; nonsense; showmanship" (that's the OED definition), and the verb Barnumize: "to exhibit with a lavish display of puffing advertisements" (again, from the OED).

Though he doesn't get the credit for originating it, Barnum surely gets the prize for giving legs to the memetic phrase, The Greatest Show on Earth. It's a title he ascribed to his traveling circus in the 19th century and it has gained enough currency since that time to deserve its own disambiguation page on Wikipedia. Barnum is also credited with a number of colorful quotations, most notably one he probably didn't say ("There's a sucker born every minute") and one he probably did ("Every crowd has a silver lining").

These all seem to be particularly apt contributions from a man who is remembered today mainly for his association with a circus – a circus that is in fact still in existence, and still showcases Barnum's name. It may be surprising then to learn that Barnum did not get fully into the circus business till he was 60 – after a career that included assembling a notorious traveling freak show; serving in the Connecticut legislature; promoting a vastly successful American tour of the singer Jenny Lind; charming European royalty with various novelties, mechanical marvels, and natural curiosities; and developing a handful of museums.

From all of this, Barnum was a household word and an international celebrity long before he took his first circus on the road. But perhaps the most surprising facts about him – ones that can only make us modern scribblers gape in slack-jawed amazement – are that, after the Bible, Barnum's autobiography was the best-selling book in the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century, and that Barnum cut deals with his many publishers to pocket a handsome royalty stream of 30% on the retail price ($1.25) of every copy of it sold.

To our modern sensibilities, an autobiography that includes "golden rules for money-making" may seem unutterably crass. But the business of getting the attention of the public was a completely different enterprise in Barnum's day than it is in ours, and it is only fair to evaluate Barnum against the backdrop of his times. Modern impresarios, thanks to Internet technology, have a wide range of outlets through which they can make a bid for public attention with virtually no barrier to entry. In addition, there exists today an entire industry that stands ready to help the individual who (armed with a sufficient amount of cash or credit) wishes to grow an audience, or to become a fixture in the mind of the public. Barnum, by contrast, masterminded and executed his vast promotional machinery mainly by himself, and he had only one dependable medium for reaching a public beyond his immediate environment: the press. One of Barnum's biographers notes that Barnum played the press "like a calliope," and this does not seem to be an exaggerated claim. The press adored Barnum, giving no end of attention to his many successes and few failures. From the time he was a young man he was almost never out of the public eye, whether promoting himself, his own writings, or his various and largely successful commercial enterprises.

The passage of two hundred years since Barnum's birth is a reasonable interval to elapse before attempting an assessment of his legacy, and from this vantage, which is also more than a hundred years after his death, it's fair to say that Barnum did what he did very well indeed. He was perhaps the world's first great purveyor of popular entertainment. Another of his many biographers goes so far as to call Barnum the creator of show business as we know it today. The  marks that Barnum has left on language reflect that: he exemplifies an idea we explored in the Lounge a few years ago, namely, that those who would influence language have the best chance of doing so by applying themselves wholeheartedly to the thing that they do best.

What sort of person would Barnum be if he were alive today? We can only speculate, but it seems likely that he would find a way to make himself and his enterprises just as well known as they were in his day, navigating the modern channels through which this is accomplished with zeal and ease. Barnum was an American original: a man who blurred the distinction between entertainment and politics, who never rested in his quest for publicity, and who found a way to monetize nearly everything that he ever did or wrote. In today's world, whether we respect it or not, these qualities describe not an individual but a type: the media personality. To his credit however, and in contrast to many of Barnum's wannabe counterparts today, he never thought of himself as being any more than he was: "I am a showman by profession," he wrote, "and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me. When a man is ashamed of his origin, or gets above his business, he is a poor devil, who merits the detestation of all who know him."

Barnum visited England near the end of his life and recorded his impressions of Victorian Britain for the North American Review. For those unfamiliar with him, that article, from one of the "Making of America" archives, is an interesting and representative introduction.


Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Language Lounge.

Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Friday October 1st 2010, 9:35 AM
Comment by: Crawf (Empire, MI)
There should be a rating level between fantabulous and good. Excellent? Very Good?
Thanks!
Chuck Crawford
Overlooking The Big Blue Lake
Empire, Michigan
Friday October 1st 2010, 2:16 PM
Comment by: Mary Lee M.
The phrase that jumped out at me was that he "blurred the distinction between entertainment and politics." I wonder if he was the first to do so. He certainly was not the last.

It seems to me that in today's world, the blurring of those two distinctions has become perilous. Thanks, Orin, for pointing that out. Maybe we should should start trying to get our linguists to run for public office!
Friday October 1st 2010, 2:25 PM
Comment by: toodance (WA)
I loved reading this article. -Kept my interest. -The circus enterprise starting when most are contemplating retirement, a shocking discovery indeed.
Friday October 1st 2010, 2:41 PM
Comment by: Tom L. (Apalachicola, FL)
There are many today who not only blur but actually erase "the distinction between entertainment and politics." We need look no further than Keith Olberman or Glenn Beck.

The second sentence of the final quotation in the article should be engraved on all our hearts. "When a man is ashamed of his origin, or gets above his business, he is a poor devil, who merits the detestation of all who know him."
Friday October 1st 2010, 4:36 PM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks to all for your comments. Thanks especially to you, Tom L, for mentioning the names that kept popping into my head when I was reading about Mr. Barnum, but which I did not want to mention myself, lest I too succumb to blurring the noted distinction!
Saturday October 2nd 2010, 7:36 PM
Comment by: Martin J.
Mr Barnum's way with words is celebrated in the story of the signpost he set up to keep the crowds streaming through the sideshows: "To the egress".
Monday October 4th 2010, 3:25 PM
Comment by: Tom W.
Great article. The present day person that came to my mind was Donald Trump.

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.

Define Your Terms!
- 2 Comments
How do you get in the dictionary? Do great things!
War and Words
- 15 Comments
How the War of 1812 split American and British English.
Golden Jubilee
- 13 Comments
We raise a toast to words celebrating their fiftieth anniversary.