10 Terms That Came From Theater

razihusin/iStock via Getty Images
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.

The ChopBox Smart Cutting Board Has a Food Scale, Timer, and Knife Sharper Built Right Into It

ChopBox
ChopBox

When it comes to furnishing your kitchen with all of the appliances necessary to cook night in and night out, you’ll probably find yourself running out of counter space in a hurry. The ChopBox, which is available on Indiegogo and dubs itself “The World’s First Smart Cutting Board,” looks to fix that by cramming a bunch of kitchen necessities right into one cutting board.

In addition to giving you a knife-resistant bamboo surface to slice and dice on, the ChopBox features a built-in digital scale that weighs up to 6.6 pounds of food, a nine-hour kitchen timer, and two knife sharpeners. It also sports a groove on its surface to catch any liquid runoff that may be produced by the food and has a second pull-out cutting board that doubles as a serving tray.

There’s a 254nm UVC light featured on the board, which the company says “is guaranteed to kill 99.99% of germs and bacteria" after a minute of exposure. If you’re more of a traditionalist when it comes to cleanliness, the ChopBox is completely waterproof (but not dishwasher-safe) so you can wash and scrub to your heart’s content without worry. 

According to the company, a single one-hour charge will give you 30 days of battery life, and can be recharged through a Micro USB port.

The ChopBox reached its $10,000 crowdfunding goal just 10 minutes after launching its campaign, but you can still contribute at different tiers. Once it’s officially released, the ChopBox will retail for $200, but you can get one for $100 if you pledge now. You can purchase the ChopBox on Indiegogo here.

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Why Are Common Graves Called Potter’s Fields?

Graves in potter's fields are sometimes marked with blank headstones or crosses.
Graves in potter's fields are sometimes marked with blank headstones or crosses.
vyasphoto/iStock via Getty Images

For centuries, regions around the world have maintained common graves called potter’s fields, where they bury unidentified victims and impoverished citizens who couldn’t afford their own cemetery plots. The term potter’s field has been around for just as long.

The earliest known reference to a potter’s field is from the Gospel of Matthew, which historians believe was written sometime during the 1st century. In it, a remorseful Judas gives the 30 silver coins he was paid for betraying Jesus back to the high priests, who use it to purchase a “potter’s field” where they can bury foreigners. It’s been speculated that the priests chose land from a potter either because it had already been stripped of clay and couldn’t be used for farming, or because its existing holes and ditches made it a particularly good place for graves. But Matthew doesn’t go into detail, and as the Grammarphobia Blog points out, there’s no evidence to prove that the original potter’s field was ever actually used for its clay resources—it could’ve just been a parcel of land owned by a potter.

Whatever the case, the term eventually caught on as English-language versions of the Bible made their way across the globe. In 1382, John Wycliffe translated it from Latin to Middle English, using the phrase “a feeld of a potter,” and William Tyndale’s 1526 Greek-to-English translation of the passage featured “a potters felde,” which was altered slightly to “potters field” in King James’s 1611 edition.

Around the same time, a new definition of potter was gaining popularity that had nothing to do with pottery—in the 16th century, people began using the word as a synonym for tramp or vagrant. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was first written in a 1525 Robin Hood tale, and William Wordsworth mentioned it in his 1798 poem “The Female Vagrant.” It’s likely that this sense of the word helped reinforce the idea that a potter’s field was intended for the graves of the unknown.

It’s also definitely not the only phrase we’ve borrowed from the Bible. From at your wit’s end to a fly in the ointment, here are 18 everyday expressions with holy origins.

[h/t Grammarphobia Blog]