Monday, January 3, 2011

When the Phoniness Is Real

Professional wrestling is so fake that a word exists to remind all involved parties that they’re supposed to act like it’s real. And it’s my word of the week.
kayfabe (KAY-fayb) — noun: the portrayal or perception of events within the professional wrestling world as real and not staged.
I didn’t grow up watching WWF, and although I still knew my Hulk Hogans from my Randy Savages, I missed out on a whole word of bulging spandex and high drama. I compensated, of course — I’m referring to my love for superhero comics here — but when I had to learn about pro wrestling a few weeks ago, I realize there’s a whole system of jargon used to talk about which guy has which guy pinned under his what-have-you. (Talking about wrestling here.) And the most interesting was kayfabe.

not real, but pretend it is. only the wrestling, nothing more

Essentially, it gets used a bit like how other types of geeks use the word canon — for example, “That one issue where Batman has to stop Robin from marrying the Joker is no longer considered canon, so stop bringing it up, Jerome.” But it goes beyond that, in a way. Whereas canon plot is understood to be fictional, a kayfabe event is understood to more real than, say, the latest plot twist on General Hospital is to soap opera nuts. Also, kayfabe is more wrestling. The post “The Clandestine Jargon of Professional Wrestling” explains that kayfabe is not only a noun:
As a shouted warning, [kayfabe] 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 socializing 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 handle his behind-the-scenes 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… once heard a colleague warn her “Kayfabe your breast!” and instinctively recognized the meaning as “Your dress has coming loose and requires immediate adjustment.”
The word’s origins are murky. Allegedly it comes from that source of many great American traditions: carnies, who’d use it to refer to situations in which the wrong word could alert a mark to whatever scheme would be robbing them of their money. Wikipedia claims that there’s also a tradition in which carnies would make collect calls, claiming to be “Kay Fabian,” in order to inexpensively tell loved ones they’d arrived at their next stop. It’s conjectured that the term could come from some sort of Pig Latin formation of “be fake,” though it doesn’t seem to be the kind of Pig Latin I know. I mean, wouldn’t that be eebay akefay? Eefakebay? Then again, having spent my Saturday mornings watching anthropomorphic animals instead of wrestlers, what do I know?

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