10 Terms That Came From Theater

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razihusin/iStock via Getty Images

The word entrepreneur literally means “undertaker”—not in the funereal way, but in the sense of someone who “undertakes” a particular activity or task. In that literal sense, the word (spelled enterprenour) first appeared in English in the 15th century but seemingly failed to catch on. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that it was plucked from obscurity and began to be used specifically to refer to theatrical producers and patrons who funded and managed musical productions, before the more familiar sense of “someone who owns and runs their own business interests” emerged in the 1850s. But entrepreneur isn’t the only word to have its origins on the stage, as these 10 originally theatrical terms demonstrate.

1. Background

The earliest record of the word background dates from 1671, when it first appeared in a stage direction in William Wycherley’s Restoration comedy Love In A Wood (“Ranger retires to the background”) referring to the back of a stage. Over time, the word became less specialized, referring more generally to anything that lies behind a main focus or focus point: It’s found in reference to the backdrop of a Rembrandt etching in the mid-1700s, to any disconnected, inconspicuous position in the late 1700s, and to a person’s individual upbringing or circumstances in the early 1900s.

2. Barnstorming

The original barnstormers were 19th-century itinerant actors and performers who would travel around the American countryside, stopping to put on stage shows, expositions, and lectures in barns and other equally spacious buildings. Use of the word soon spread to politics, with barnstorming first used in reference to an electioneering tour in the late 1890s, and then to aeronautics in the early 1920s, when it first referred to a grandstanding performer who would perform death-defying stunts to entertain a crowd.

3. Blackout

Although the verb “to black out” dates back to the 1800s, the earliest record of an actual blackout in English is a theatrical one, referring to the darkening of a stage between scenes or acts. In that sense, it was first recorded in a letter sent by George Bernard Shaw to his producer and director Granville Barker in 1913, referring to his concern over using a revolving stage in a production of his play Androcles and the Lion: “The more I think of that revolving business the less I see how it can be done … Unless they [the audience] revolve with the box and staircase, there will have to be a black-out.”

4. Catastrophe

The original catastrophe was the point in a plot or story at which an event—not necessarily a tragic or disastrous one—occurs that will ultimately bring about the conclusion of the piece. The word was first used in English in this sense in the late 16th century, but has its origins in the dramas of Ancient Greece; it’s derived from a Greek word, katastrophe, literally meaning “an overturning.”

5. Explode

Explode is derived from the same root (the Latin verb plaudere, meaning “to clap”) as words like applaud and plaudit, and back in the early 17th century it meant “to clap or jeer an actor or performer off the stage.” But over time, use of the word broadened and became more figurative, first meaning “to mock” or “to reject,” then “to emit” or “to violently drive out,” and finally “to burst” or “combust with a loud noise,” a sense first recorded in the late 1700s.

6. Hokum

Hokum is probably derived from bunkum (perhaps with some influence from hocus-pocus), and first appeared in American theatrical slang in the early 1900s to refer to any overly melodramatic speech or dramatic device used to provoke a reaction in the audience. From there it came to describe anything seemingly impressive or meaningful but actually of little real worth, and ultimately “pretentious nonsense” or “garbage.”

7. Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy was borrowed into English from French as far back as the turn of the 13th century, but has its roots in the Greek word meaning “to act on a stage.” The sense of someone who pretends or assumes false appearances remains in place today.

8. Machinery

Before it came to refer to machines or mechanisms in general, the word machinery referred only to the devices and apparatus in a theater used to create various effects on stage. In this original sense, machinery was inspired by the “god in the machine” or deus ex machina, a device used as far back as Ancient Greece to suspend actors portraying gods above the stage during a performance; eventually, the term deus ex machina itself came to refer to the resolution of a plot through the last-minute introduction of some all-powerful character.

9. Protagonist

The Ancient Greek word protagonistes was used to describe the lead actor in a dramatic performance, which was the original meaning of the word protagonist when it first appeared in English in the late 1600s (with the second and third most important being the deuteragonist and the tritagonist). Although still used in that sense today, nowadays protagonist is also used more broadly to refer to any prominent person or figurehead, or else simply a supporter or advocate of a particular cause.

10. Showboat

The first showboats—riverboats or steamers on which theatrical shows and entertainments would be staged—emerged in America in the mid-1800s. Derived from those, the use of showboat as a verb, meaning “to show off” or “to grandstand,” and as another word for someone who plays to a crowd or courts public attention, first appeared in print in the 1950s.

This list first ran in 2016.

Read Guy Beringer’s 1895 Essay That Coined the Term Brunch

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LUNAMARINA/iStock via Getty Images

In 1895, British writer Guy Beringer entreated the public to adopt a revolutionary meal that he called brunch. The word itself was, as we all know, a portmanteau of breakfast and lunch, and the idea was almost exactly the same as it is today: Rise late, gather your mates, and chat the afternoon away over a feast of breakfast and lunch fare.

He detailed all the benefits of his innovation in his essay “Brunch: A Plea,” which was published in Hunter’s Weekly. In addition to presenting a compelling case for making brunch a part of one's weekend routine, Beringer also seems like the kind of person you’d want to invite to your own Sunday gathering. For one, Beringer definitely lives to eat.

“Dinner’s the thing; the hour between seven and eight is worth all the rest put together,” Beringer wrote. “In these hurrying, worrying, and scurrying days the sweets of life are too often overlooked, and, with the sweets, the hors d'œuvre, soups, and entrées.”

Brunch, therefore, is a way to put the focus back on the food. It’s also a way to justify letting your Saturday night last into the early hours of Sunday morning, since a late first meal makes waking up early on Sunday “not only unnecessary but ridiculous.” According to Beringer, brunch should begin at 12:30 p.m., so feel free to tell your early-bird friend that the father of brunch would consider their 10:00 a.m. brunch reservation an utter travesty.

To Beringer, brunch was much more conducive to socializing than the quiet, comforting solitude of an early breakfast.

“Brunch ... is cheerful, sociable, and inciting. It is talk-compelling,” he explains. “It puts you in a good temper; it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow-beings. It sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.”

And, as for the bottomless mimosas, Bloody Marys, and overall boozy nature of brunch these days, Beringer approved of that, too.

“P.S.,” he adds, “Beer and whiskey are admitted as substitutes for tea and coffee.”

You can read his whole groundbreaking composition below.

"When one has reached a certain age, and the frivolities of youth have palled, one's best thoughts are turned in the channel of food. Man's first study is not man, but meals. Dinner is the climax of each day. You may have your chasse café afterwards, in the shape of theatre, music hall, or social gathering; but it is little more than a digestive. Dinner's the thing; the hour between seven and eight is worth all the rest put together. A parallel might be drawn between these sixty minutes and the Nuit de Cléopatre; but neither in length nor moral tendency would it be suitable to Hunter's Weekly. In these hurrying, worrying, and scurrying days the sweets of life are too often overlooked, and, with the sweets, the hors d'œuvre, soups, and entrées. To use a theatrical simile, there is a tendency to regard meals solely as the curtain raisers of the day's performances. Who has not whirlwind friends who rush in upon him, exclaiming, "Let's have a spree to night, old man! We won't bother about feeding; a chop or steak will about do us." What a pitiable frame of mind! Not that I am a gourmet. I hate the term. I regard a gourmet simply as a gourmand with a digestion. Excessive daintiness in regard to food is merely a form of effeminacy, and as such is to be deprecated. But there is a happy medium—everything good, plenty of it, variety and selection. On week days these conditions can without difficulty be fulfilled, but Sunday affords a problem for nice examination. All of us have experienced the purgatory of those Sabbatarian early dinners with their Christian beef and concomitant pie. Have we not eaten enough of them? I think so, and would suggest Brunch as a satisfactory substitute. The word Brunch is a corruption of breakfast and lunch, and the meal Brunch is one which combines the tea or coffee, marmalade and kindred features of the former institution with the more solid attributes of the latter. It begins between twelve and half-past and consists in the main of fish and one or two meat courses.

Apart altogether from animal considerations, the arguments in favor of Brunch are incontestable. In the first place it renders early rising not only unnecessary but ridiculous. You get up when the world is warm, or at least, when it is not so cold. You are, therefore, able to prolong your Saturday nights, heedless of that moral "last train"—the fear of the next morning's reaction. It leaves the station with your usual seat vacant, and many others also unoccupied. If Brunch became general it would be taken off altogether; the Conscience and Care Company, Limited, would run it at a loss. Their receipts on the other days would, however, be correspondingly increased, and they would be able to give their employés a much-needed holiday. The staff has become rather too obstinate and officious of late. That it must be a case of Brunch or morning church I am, of course, aware; but is any busy work-a-day man in a becomingly religious frame of mind after rising eight and nine o'clock on his only "off" morning? If he went to bed in good time the night before, well and good; but Saturday is Saturday, and will remain so. More especially from seven onwards. To a certain extent I am pleading for Brunch from selfish motives. The world would be kinder and more charitable if my brief were successful. To begin with, Brunch is a hospitable meal; breakfast is not. Eggs and bacon are adapted to solitude; they are consoling, but not exhilarating. They do not stimulate conversation. Brunch, on the contrary, is cheerful, sociable, and inciting. It is talk-compelling. It puts you in a good temper; it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow-beings. It sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week. The advantages of the suggested innovation are, in short, without number, and I submit it is fully time that the old régime of Sunday breakfast made room for the "new course" of Sunday Brunch.

P.S.—Beer and whiskey are admitted as substitutes for tea and coffee."

10 Fascinating Facts About the Thesaurus for National Thesaurus Day

iStock.com/LeitnerR
iStock.com/LeitnerR

Writers often turn to a thesaurus to diversify their vocabulary and add nuance to their prose. But looking up synonyms and antonyms in a thesaurus can help anyone—writer or not—find the most vivid, incisive words to communicate thoughts and ideas. Since January 18 is Thesaurus Day, we’re celebrating with these 10 fascinating facts about your thesaurus.

1. Thesaurus comes from the Greek word for treasure.

Greek lettering.
iStock

Most logophiles consider the thesaurus to be a treasure trove of diction, but the word thesaurus really does mean "treasure." It derives from the Greek word thésauros, which means a storehouse of precious items, or a treasure.

2. The plural of thesaurus is thesauruses or thesauri.

Row of old books lined up.
iStock

How do you refer to more than one octopus? People say everything from octopuses to octopi to octopodes. Similarly, many people have trouble figuring out the correct plural form of the word thesaurus. Though thesauri is technically correct—it attaches a Latin suffix to the Latin word thēsaurus—both thesauri and thesauruses are commonly used and accepted today.

3. Early thesauruses were really dictionaries.

Close-up of the term 'ideal' in a thesaurus.
iStock

Ask a French scholar in the 16th century to see his thesaurus, and he'd gladly give you a copy of his dictionary. In the early 1530s, a French printer named Robert Estienne published Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, a comprehensive Latin dictionary listing words that appeared in Latin texts throughout an enormous span of history. And in 1572, Estienne's son Henri published Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, a dictionary of Greek words. Although the Estiennes's books were called thesauruses, they were really dictionaries comprised of alphabetical listings of words with their definitions.

4. A Greek historian wrote the first book of synonyms.

Stacks of books surrounding an open book and a pair of glasses.
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Philo of Byblos, a Greek historian and grammarian, wrote On Synonyms, a dictionary of synonyms that scholars consider to be the first ancient thesaurus. Dating to the late 1st century or early 2nd century CE, the book lists Greek words that are similar in meaning to each another. Sadly, we don’t know much more about On Synonyms because copies of the work haven’t survived over the centuries.

5. An early Sanskrit thesaurus was written in the form of a poem.

Sanskrit lettering.
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In the 4th century CE, an Indian poet and grammarian named Amara Sinha wrote The Amarakosha, a thesaurus of Sanskrit words. Rather than compile a boring list of similar words, Amara Sinha turned his thesaurus into a long poem. Divided into three sections—words relating to the divine, the earth, and everyday life—The Amarakosha contains verses so readers could memorize words easily. This thesaurus is the oldest book of its kind that still exists.

6. A British doctor wrote the first modern thesaurus.

Portrait of Peter Mark Roget.
Thomas Pettigrew, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Peter Mark Roget is the British doctor credited with authoring the first modern thesaurus. In 1805, he began compiling a list of words, arranged by their meaning and grouped according to theme. After retiring from his work as a physician in 1852, Roget published his Thesaurus of English words and phrases; so classified and arranged as to facilitate the expression of ideas and assist in literary composition. Today, Roget’s Thesaurus is still commercially successful and widely used. In fact, we celebrate Thesaurus Day on January 18 because Roget was born on this day in 1779.

7. The thesaurus has a surprising link to a mathematical tool.

Image of a vintage log log slide rule.
Joe Haupt, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The division between "words people" and "numbers people" is deep-seated. Many mathematicians may try to steer clear of thesauruses, and bibliophiles may avoid calculators, but the thesaurus is actually linked to a mathematical tool. Around 1815, Roget invented the log-log slide rule, a ruler-like device that allows users to easily calculate the roots and exponents of numbers. So while the inventor of the thesaurus was compiling words for his tome, he was also hard at work on the log-log slide rule. A true jack-of-all-trades.

8. The Oxford English Dictionary has its own historical thesaurus.

Synonyms for
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In 1965, a professor of English Language at Glasgow University suggested that scholars should create a historical thesaurus based on entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. The project was a massive undertaking, as people from multiple countries worked for 44 years to compile and classify words. Published in 2009, the Historical Thesaurus to the Oxford English Dictionary contains 800,000 words organized by theme and date. The thesaurus covers words and synonyms from Old English to the present day and lets readers discover when certain words were coined and how long they were commonly used.

9. One artist turned his love of words into a series of thesaurus paintings.

Mel Bochner,
Mel Bochner, "Crazy," 2004. Francesca Castelli, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 2014, the Jewish Museum in New York showed a survey of conceptual artist Mel Bochner’s art. Bochner had incorporated words and synonyms in his paintings for years—which were collectively referred to as the thesaurus paintings—featuring word paintings and lists of synonyms on canvas. The brightly colored paintings feature different groups of English and Yiddish synonyms. According to Bochner, Vietnam and Iraq war veterans cried after seeing his thesaurus painting Die, which features words and phrases such as expire, perish, succumb, drop dead, croak, go belly up, pull the plug, and kick the bucket.

10. There's an urban thesaurus for all your slang synonym needs.

Copy of an Urban Dictionary book.
Effie Yang, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Urban Dictionary helps people decipher the latest slang terms, but where should you go when you need a thesaurus of slang? Urban Thesaurus, of course. The site, which is not affiliated with Urban Dictionary, indexes millions of slang terms culled from slang dictionaries, then calculates usage correlations between the terms. Typing in the word money, for example, gives you an eclectic list of synonyms including scrilla, cheddar, mulah, coin, and bling.

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