10 Terms That Came From Theater
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.