In this edition of The Wrestling Dictionary on Atletifo, we’ll go through the origins of the term Kayfabe. We’ll explain what Kayfabe means, how the term came to be known and the origins of the concept behind it. We’ll also look at the idea of “keeping Kayfabe” and which stars went a little bit too far to keep the business a secret to the fans.
What Does Kayfabe Mean?
Kayfabe is the portrayal of the events of professional wrestling as being real and completely true. It is the art of portraying professional wrestling as a real sport, with the wrestlers as true sportsmen. This includes any storylines or characters involved in the event, with wrestlers keeping up the character in their day-to-day lives in very extreme cases.
Kayfabe is seen as the suspension of disbelief when watching pro-wrestling. This extends to both the fans and the performers. Keeping Kayfabe would mean that fans consider the actions happening in the ring completely real, unscripted and the characters real people. In Kayfabe, The Undertaker is an undead mortician with magic powers. Outside of Kayfabe, he is a Texan named Mark Callaway who has a wife and two children.
Kayfabe can be compard to the “fourth wall” in media. The fourth wall was the side of the set where a camera was filming a closed set. “Breaking the fourth wall” was speaking to the audience behind the camera, reavelling that it was a show and not real. While this practise is outdated, the term is used for any time that the audience are taken out of a story and reminded that is indeed a story and not real.
Unlike cinema, wrestling has a more encompassing fourth wall. The idea of Kayfabe meant that wrestlers had to keep up the character they portrayed whenever they were in the presence of potential fans, or “marks”. If the illusion of Kayfabe was broken and wrestling was outed as fake then fans would stop going to matches and the business would be done for. Or at least, that was the thought. It turns out people have thought wrestling was fake for over 100 years so it was all a pointless endeavour. Sorry guys.
Origins Of Kayfabe
The origins of the word Kayfabe is often disputed, although the most accepted history is that it came from the carnivals where wrestling was a sport used to swindle marks out of their money. Wrestling was a legitimate sport in years gone by. However, promoters soon began to realise that if they fixed the fights, they could make them more exciting, make bigger stars that fans wanted to see and more importantly make more money.
The word Kayfabe came from a carny (the name for people working at the carnival’s, now used as a derogotary term for somebody who swindles others in various specific means) way of speaking, which was a form of Pig Latin.
The term is a bastardised version of the word “Fake”, flipping the letters “Ke” and “Fa”, and adding sounds after each one. “Ke” became “Kay” and “Fa” became “Fabe”, creating the word “Kayfabe”. Kayfabe was the word for those in the know to tell each other to keep in character and keep their world a secret.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest known written evidence of the word “kayfabe” is from the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Yearbook for 1988. However, the word was used for decades prior to that by various people in the business. The idea of “keeping Kayfabe” was engrained in people in the business that it became a huge part of their vocabulary, but was so important that it was never published through fear of “exposing the business” (which means revealling the fixed nature of professional wrestling).
What Does Keeping Kayfabe Mean
Keeping Kayfabe means not revealing the true nature of professional wrestling to the fans. This can include not talking about the business, staying in character whilst in the presence of fans, or putting on realistic looking matches and shows to not break the fourth wall.
One part of keeping kayfabe was the good guys not fraternising with the bad guys. The babyfaces (good guys) were not allowed to be seen as being friends with the heels (bad guys) outside of the ring. If a heel was caught with a babyface, it could kill his whole gimmick. Many wrestlers were cast out of their local territories for not “keeping kayfabe” and being seen with their opposite.
One extreme example of keeping kayfabe was The Sandman in ECW. During an angle in his feud with Raven, he was blinded by his rival (in Kayfabe). In order to keep the business looking real, he didn’t leave his house for the entire time he was supposed to be blind, and would pretend to be blind if he did meet anyone. Other examples are Dusty Rhodes wearing a cast for months around the house when the Four Horseman “broke his leg”, despite him being completely fine.
Hamish is a writer and podcaster and wrestling fan who is a key part of the Atletifo team.
After playing countless hours of WrestleMania X8 on the Gamecube, he discovered Rey Mysterio getting his head crushed by The Great Khali, and thus a love for professional wrestling was born.
He is also a Media Graduate, as well as writing for multiple sites about Premier League football and the culture of Wales – his home country.