You Can’t Say That Anymore – The Evolution of Language on Film Sets

by | Jun 28, 2021 | Essays | 1 comment

You may send me to wash my mouth out with soap after you read this, but old habits die hard and the vernacular we use on film sets is slow to change.  In fact, the word “film” is still used pretty loosely even as the actual use of celluloid is getting evermore rare.  We still call ourselves Filmmakers or Film Workers, although Motion Picture Professional might be more accurate. We still say “roll” or “turn over” even though it is rare that anything is rolling or turning as we begin the digital recording process, We use terms like over-crank or under-crank, and refer to a production that has wrapped as being in “the can”, as if it were exposed film.  Editors still “cut” even though they no longer physically dissect anything, and break movie projects into reels, which is a carryover from the maximum length of a film roll a projector could handle.  All this language evolved from a long tradition of motion picture production and post that was once tied to the physicality of running celluloid though a camera and projector and I don’t think anyone has a problem that it has stuck around.

However in the era of Me Too and Times Up, our industry is slowly waking up and realizing that some of our less politically correct terminology can be offensive and hurtful.  I want to review and identify some of the more common film set slang we just shouldn’t use anymore in order that we may encourage more inclusive and harmonious workplaces.  If we truly want to get away from the old boys club mentality on motion picture sets that works to exclude women, people of color, and those with different sexual orientations, we will need to leave such “locker room talk” in the dustbin of history.

TalkAboutSexLet’s talk about SEX, and how the language of the wider entertainment industry is evolving.  Much care and sensitivity is starting to be considered any time gender is involved.  Although it can sometimes feel like it goes overboard and gets a little too PC, it is part of the slow process of aligning our language with our stated values.

71st Annual Primetime EmmysMany female performers no longer want to be categorized as “actresses.”  Some are happy to be called “actors,” or alternate gender-neutral terms such as player or artist.  In deference to nonbinary performers the TV Academy recently announced that they will invite people who are nominated for acting awards to be recognized as a “performer,” rather than an “actor” or “actress,” even though the categories will still be delineated by gender.  Their official statement reads: “No performer category titled ‘Actor’ or ‘Actress’ has ever had a gender requirement for submissions…Now, nominees and (or) winners in any performer category titled ‘Actor’ or ‘Actress’ may request that their nomination certificate and Emmy statuette carry the term ‘Performer’ in place of Actor or Actress.”

Although the everyday usage and application of nonbinary pronouns such as “they” and “them” instead of “he” or “she” can take a little getting used to, we should do our best to make everyone feel respected and comfortable.  This is a far cry from traditional on-set slang, some of which I may get into trouble for even mentioning.  If you’re easily offended by such references, I urge you to stop reading NOW!

The male vs. female delineation of connections such as electrical outlets has long been defined by which side has prongs and which side receives those extrusions.  Connecting them so that the “juice” can flow is known as “mating.” If it is not clear enough, Wikipedia explains that “the assignment is a direct analogy with genitalia and sexual intercourse.”  In any case, it is hard to imagine that those who came up with this nomenclature didn’t have sex on their minds.  Meanwhile, coupling adapters that marry the same “sex” connectors have been known as homophobic slurs, which to be honest, I have not heard for many years, so perhaps there is already progress being made.

This terminology is, of course, much larger than our industry, but it used to get carried to vulgar extremes on movie sets, such as with the motion picture electricians’ old saying “F__k the Truck,” to remind newbies, who were traditionally male, when laying out cable, that the male side goes back toward the generator.  Not that they would ever need to be reminded again if they were ever unfortunate enough to lay out a complete cable run and then find out once they got to the power source that they had the wrong end in hand. This extremely heavy cable has been described with its own colorful terminology.  The 4 conductor 4/0 cable has been known as “Donkey Dick” while slightly smaller 3/0 cable was called “Horse Cock”.

BullPrickButtPlugSpeaking of four legged animal appendages, we can’t forget the “Bull Prick,” a term used to describe a steel stake driven into the earth to ground the electrical system.  And let’s not forget the “Butt Plug,” an adapter that fills the larger Junior stand receptacle and converts it to a 5/8” baby pin.

Gender specific titles such as “Best Boy” to denote the second in command for the Grip or Electric departments are still in use to this day, although there has been an effort to instead use terms such as Assistant Chief Lighting Technician and Assistant Key Grip.

MickeyRooney2However, problematic nomenclature is not all based on sexual context.  How about Master or Slave to denote which version is to be copied to and which is to be copied from; does this really have to be put in terms of servitude?  Another term that comes to mind is a “Betty Ford” to refer to a 12-Step Ladder as she was known to be a recovering alcoholic.  And a term I take exception to is calling a small slow dolly move a “Mickey Rooney,” supposedly because he was a short creep.  However, I shot a movie with Mickey Rooney and found him to be quite affable, extremely professional, and easy to work with.

UbangiComboSpeaking of dollies, and considered racially insensitive, the “Ubangi” is a plate designed to offset the camera from the dolly.  The name is derived from the Sara tribe in Africa that practiced a body modification technique to extend their bottom lip by inserting plates to permanently stretch their face.  Sadly, the name has also been used as a racial epithet.

WestcottSolixAnother racially insensitive term is known as the “Chinese” setting for barn doors on a light. This is a crude reference to the doors being set in a narrow horizontal position suggesting the stereotypical shape of the eyes belonging to a person of East Asian descent.  (Shown here on a Westcott Solix Bi-Color, one of a set of really impressive lights I have on loan for evaluation; more on that in a future essay.)  Let’s see, who else can we disparage”?  How about “Dumb Side” of a camera, used to refer to the one opposite from the Operator; why refer to it in terms of intelligence?

BallBuster35 lbSandbagAnd then there is the term “Ball Buster” used to refer to large sandbags; is it really necessary to reference the male anatomy?  Or how about “Two Ts” used to describe a medium shot with the bottom of the frame set at the breast; do I have to tell you what the “T”s stand for?.

When I first set out to write this essay, I thought it would serve more as a protest to super-woke political correctness.  However, when I started looking back at the derivation of some of these terms and the potentially hurtful and exclusionary impact it could have on others, it changed my focus.  While it can be fun to have insider slang and silly nicknames as shorthand for the tech tools we share with our co-workers, I have come to the conclusion that it is about time to eradicate discriminatory language and make every effort to be inclusive to make everyone feel comfortable on set.  I’m not going to wash my mouth out with soap if I slip up and utter one of these phrases out of habit, but I will endeavor to find new, more respectful language that doesn’t make anyone feel less than, and I hope you’ll each do the same.


1 Comment

  1. Wesley Brown

    Thanks for the insightful read! I’m currently reading through the set lighting technician’s handbook by Harry C. Box (which now, after reading this article, seems like a pseudonym I should look into) and came across the “Chinese” vs “American” settings for barn doors. I scratched my head at this and thought “really?”, trying to justify that maybe the term is somehow related to geography (similar to “Chicago, LA, New York” when using a full apple box) but I googled it to make sure. I found your article and Alas, it seems a textbook published in 2020 can still use outdated language without disclaimer. Oh well. Anyways, Thanks for the nice read. I learned a lot more than I expected to off a quick google search.


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