Professional Wrestling's Clandestine Jargon

By Lister, John | Verbatim, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Professional Wrestling's Clandestine Jargon


Lister, John, Verbatim


That professional wrestling matches are performances rather than contests will come as little revelation to most, but until as late as the mid-1990s those in the industry believed it was a secret that must be protected at all costs. As with the culture of travelling carnivals (from which the wrestling business developed), performers and promoters developed a jargon designed to allow communication without fear of revealing the inner workings of the industry to bystanders.

Such secrecy had two notable effects on the development of wrestling language. Terms were understandably rarely recorded in writing, making them more vulnerable to corruption as they spread orally. And with no written authority to which to defer, terms were not always limited to a single, precise use.

This is demonstrated by kayfabe (pronounced "kay-fayb"), the key term in wrestling jargon, and a particularly versatile one. Its primary meaning is as an abstract noun, referring to the concept of keeping the secrets of wrestling hidden from outsiders. As a shouted warning, it instructed wrestlers that an outsider was in the vicinity and that speakers should either change the subject or fall silent. An action that goes against this code (such as supposedly rival wrestlers socialising in public) is breaking kayfabe.

The term can act as a verb: a kayfabed interview is one where the wrestler speaks from the perspective of his in-ring character rather than his real-life persona, while to kayfabe somebody is to lie to them in order to protect the business. An example of the term as an adjective would be a kayfabe manager: a man who appears at ringside with a wrestler but does not truly handle his business affairs.

The term is so common that it can even be employed as a catch-all shorthand where the meaning can be arbitrary. Female performer Missy Hyatt (who recalled the incident in her book First Lady of Wrestling) once heard a colleague warn her "Kayfabe your breast!" and instinctively recognised the meaning as 'Your dress is coming loose and requires immediate adjustment.'

Most early written examples of the term were insider jokes for those inside the industry. A 1950s performer in New England worked as Boris K. Fabian, while promoter Gino Marella had a license plate reading K FABE, and a 1987 wrestling television special listed Kaye Fabe among the production staff. The phrase's meaning was first documented in insider newsletters such as the Wrestling Observer (a trade journal launched in 1982), and it was the title of a mid-'80s Japanese-language book written to expose the business by disgruntled performer Satoru Sayama.

There have been several attempts to explain the term's etymology. The most spurious involve second- or third-hand tales of a wrestler named Kay Fabian who, depending on the variant, was either mute (and thus a literal inspiration for a code of silence) or an untrustworthy gossip; there is no record of such a man existing.

The most common explanation is that the term is a corrupted form of a Pig Latin version of fake, which, in some traditions, would be along the lines of "ke-fay." Some have put forward the idea that the transformed term is actually be fake, but, even leaving aside the liberal transformation that would be required, it seems unlikely any speaker would coin such a stilted phrase in the first place.

The most credible theory is that it is a variant of the Latin caveo (in the sense of 'be on guard against' or 'look out for'). While tales of upper-class schoolboys using the warning "keep cavey" appear to be literary inventions of the "cripes" and "jeepers" variety, there are accounts of the phrase being used in this fashion among East London Jews between the wars. Many of the leading U.S. wrestling promoters and performers of this period were of Eastern European origin and spoke a broken or heavily accented English, perhaps explaining the term's transformation in pronunciation.

The earliest documentary evidence of wrestling's insider terms is a 1937 book Fall Guys by New York sportswriter Marcus Griffin. …

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