Between Pennywise and Twisty, clowns have gotten a bad rap. Although we have every right to be afraid of them, you might be surprised to know that they haven't always been horror movie material. The art of clowning has a long and rich tradition and history, from Pygmy clowns in ancient Egypt to court jesters in medieval Europe to annoying French mimes. Here are 16 terms to help you get to know clowns beyond their evil grins.
A sentimental, white-faced clown, the pierrot is named for a 17th-century stock character in French pantomime. His costume is loose and white and includes a giant neck ruffle. The pierrot is considered in some circles to be top clown.
Often paired with the pierrot, the harlequin is a clown of “mischievous intrigue,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). She is recognizable by her floppy hat, often with bells on it, and diamond-patterned tights. One famous harlequin (aside from DC Comics' puntastic Harley Quinn) is Pablo Picasso, who is said to have inserted himself into his paintings disguised as the court jester-like clown.
Like the pierrot, the harlequin is named after a stock character, this time from the Italian commedia dell'arte, a kind of improvised playacting that began in the 16th century. The name Harlicken might ultimately come from the Old French word for the leader of la maisnie Hellequin, a gang of demons who flew through the night on horseback.
This slang term for a clown was coined by Pygmalion playwright George Bernard Shaw and is named for famed 18th-century English performer Joseph Grimaldi. Grimaldi's tragic life belied his comedic antics. Due to the “extraordinary physical demands” of clowning, Grimaldi suffered so from arthritis and “digestive ailments” that he was forced to retire at 45.
Later, Grimaldi’s son, who had also gotten into clowning, died at 30. J.S., as he was known, was an alcoholic who suffered from epileptic seizures. Some suspected he had either been poisoned or had died as a result of injuries from a fight. Not long after, Grimaldi’s wife passed away, and three years later, Grimaldi himself, by then an impoverished and depressed alcoholic, died at 58.
4. WHITE CLOWN
Joseph Grimaldi might have been the most famous of white or whiteface clowns. Perhaps coming from the tradition of the pierrot, the whiteface is the ringleader of the clown posse. His makeup comes in three variations: European, neat, and grotesque. The European style, which was Joseph Grimaldi's, seems to most resemble the pierrot’s—delicate and not too exaggerated. Neat is similar to European, only slightly more exaggerated, while the grotesque’s makeup style is highly exaggerated. Think Bozo and Ronald McDonald.
Playing second banana to the whiteface, the Auguste is wild, clumsy, and kind of innocent. The word Auguste is French in origin, but aside from that, where it comes from is unclear. One theory is that an opposite sense arose of the word august, which means majestic, stately, or revered. However, “evidence is lacking,” according to the OED.
6. CHARACTER CLOWN
The character clown is the lowest on the clown totem pole and can take on almost any persona. The earliest characters clowns were the Happy Hobo and the Sad Tramp. One of the most renowned of the tramp clowns was the German-born Otto Griebling, who performed with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
7. CARPET CLOWN
Originally a solo Auguste who performed between acts, the carpet clown now refers to any “fill in” clown. Why carpet? Apparently one of the carpet clown's original duties was to lay out the carpeting for bareback riders.
8., 9., AND 10. BUSINESS, GAGS, AND BITS
The term business describes the individual movements of a clown. Gags are short jokes clowns play on each other—if repeated, the joke becomes a running gag—while bits are made up of gags.
11. AND 12. ENTREES AND SIDE DISHES
The entree is made up of bits and gags, and may involve several clowns and a beginning, middle, and an end. A side dish is a shorter version of an entree.
The blow-off is the end of a gag, bit, entree, or side dish. Popular blow-offs include a thrown bucket of confetti, the pants drop, and the clown exit.
14. CLOWN STOP
While props and rigging are changed, various clowns, including the carpet variety, keep the audience entertained by performing clown stops, which are brief gags and bits.
15. CLOWN WALK-AROUND
In a clown walk-around, all the clowns come out to promenade around the circus ring, occasionally stopping to perform tricks for the audience.
16. CLOWN ALLEY
What’s a group of clowns called? No, not a horror. A clown alley is a troupe of clowns who perform together regularly. There are a couple of theories for the origin of the term. One is that it’s named for the out of the way, alley-like place where clowns were exiled to put on their potentially messy makeup. Another is that it comes from the Franglish phrase, “Clowns, allez!” or "Clown, go!" which the circus director would shout when it was time to send in the clowns.