AT THE END OF HIS 1959 History of the Circus in America, George Chindahl asserts, "In some form, and probably in numerous forms, the circus will live."

Twenty years later, however, Don Wilmeth wrote in the introduction to this absolutely indispensable glossary, "There are less than a dozen circuses in the United States playing under canvas, and most are small operations, mud shows for the most part, with little of the appeal 'The Greatest Show on Earth' once possessed."

Twenty years since Wilmeth wrote that, the main form the traditional circus now occupies is in books of academia. Dog and pony shows like Circus Eos take the stage at Seattle Center; the permanent theme park has supplanted the traveling carnival; and all we know of minstrel shows, medicine shows, and chatauquas comes from Hollywood.

In a way, that's not so bad. Shows like Cirque du Soleil have reinvented many of the acrobatic arts and taken daring risks in presenting powerful extravaganzas. Even without blindfolded bears riding unicycles along tightropes 40 feet in the air, these animal-free circuses can put on a great show.

But they're not the Greatest Show on Earth. Of course, the consolidation of Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey under this moniker was as devastating a development as there ever was in the history of the circus. Smaller shows couldn't compete with Big Bertha. And when the Big One decided to shun the big rag and take the trick indoors (playing in arenas like Madison Square Garden rather than take its canvas to every little high-grass town on the map), it left the mud shows in the mud.

What Wilmeth's glossary does is take you back to a lost world. Consider the "Monday man," a fellow given the exclusive right to swipe laundry from clotheslines of the townspeople, while they stood outside to watch the circus parade. Even if that world seems to have been overrun by crooks and swindlers, and governed by a principle of the insider's fear of and contempt for the outsider (one definition for "sucker" is someone who attends a circus), it's a place that inspires a strange nostalgia.

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