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Photo cut-outs

Q From Gwyn Headley, UK: I work for a picture library, so naming things correctly in image keywords is crucial for us. But how do you find something when you don’t know what it’s called? We had a request for a photograph of one of those end-of-the-pier painted boards into which you stick your head to get photographed. But what are they called? No one seems to know.

A This has proved a most intriguing query and also a frustrating one. The result of numerous enquiries by World Wide Words subscribers and by me shows that the problem is not that there’s no one name for the things but that there are too many, with no general agreement on what to call them. Nearly all the names come from the US, so that finding an accepted British term for them has proved impossible.

Many of the terms are descriptive phrases rather than names as such. Two Flickr groups featuring pictures of them have the titles Head Through the Hole and Things You Stick Your Head In, while a third has the abbreviated tag facesinholes. My search online found face cut-outs. Michael Hocken tells me that the Web site of a British seller of the things calls them head through the hole photo booths. Jack Hartfield e-mailed from Sydney to say that he had rented three of the things and that the invoices had called them photo cutout boards. Such attempts are both imprecise and clumsy but demonstrate the lack of a generally understood term.

Mary O’Neill, editor-in-chief of Chambers Dictionaries, helped me out by finding comic foreground, a name (and a genre) which Wikipedia claims was invented by the American painter and cartoonist Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, who early in the twentieth century produced those famous paintings of dogs playing poker. Vivian Marr, also of Chambers, tells me that the French call them passe-têtes, essentially places to put one’s head through (le mot juste, indeed). Peter Casey discovered examples of carnival cutouts, which seems to be a more common US term today than comic foreground and has reached print a few times:

Once again, the kid’s weight had shot up alarmingly. He was looking a bit like one of the carnival cutouts of a little boy’s face on top of a huge bulging man’s body.

The Last Good Day, by Peter Blauner, 2004.

Richard Beard, former director of the California Renaissance Faire, says such items are a stock-in-trade at US themed events and have the name lookie loo, which I know as a slang term — only in the US, I think — for a rubbernecker, a person who is “just looking”, with no intention of actually buying. Scott Langill sent me to Wayne Keyser’s online Dictionary of Carny, Circus, Sideshow & Vaudeville Lingo, where the devices are called mugboards. This may be an independent creation, with no direct link to another sense of the word, a board with writing on it placed in a photograph to identify the person or object in it; this term has been used by the US police, no doubt by association with mug shot and also with mug book, a collection of photographs of criminals to aid identification by a victim. Michael Turniansky discovered that another term used by a number of the US makers of such items is faceless cutouts:

Faceless cutouts of pioneer children disappeared from Goose Lake Prairie State park earlier this month. Grundy County Crime Stoppers has put up a reward of up to $1,000 for information on the theft. The silhouette cutouts are of a pioneer boy and girl. They are designed for visitors to the park to stick their heads through the empty faces for photographic memories.

The Herald News, Joliet, Illinois, 27 July 2002. Note the extended explanation needed to make the meaning of the term clear.

In lieu of a name that will be understood everywhere, a couple of readers suggested that they be called Headleys in honour of the questioner.

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Page created 14 Feb 2009