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 Ohio State University Is Trying to Trademark the ‘The’ in Its Name

As any good Ohioan knows, there’s a big difference between an Ohio state university and The Ohio State University. But with countless other public colleges across the state, including the similarly named Ohio University, it’s not hard for out-of-towners or prospective students to get confused. To further distinguish themselves from other institutions (and to capitalize on merchandise opportunities, no doubt), The Ohio State University is pursuing a trademark for the The in its name.

According to Smithsonian.com, trademark lawyer Josh Gerben first broke the news on Twitter, where he shared a short video that included the trademark application itself, as well as examples of how the university plans to use the word on apparel. One is a white hat emblazoned with a red THE, and the other is a red scoop-necked T-shirt with a white THE and the Ohio State logo beneath it. Gerben predicts that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will initially deny the trademark request on the basis that those examples aren’t sufficient trademark use, but the university would have an opportunity to try again.

The Columbus Dispatch reports that university spokesperson Chris Davey confirmed the trademark application, saying that “Ohio State works to vigorously protect the university’s brand and trademarks.” He’s not exaggerating; the university has secured trademarks for legendary coaches Urban Meyer and Woody Hayes, plus more than 150 trademarks and pending applications across an impressive 17 countries.

The school's 2017 request to trademark the initials "OSU" provoked an objection from Oklahoma State University, which is also known as OSU, but the two schools eventually decided that they could both use it, as long as each refrained from producing clothing or content that could cause confusion about which school was being referenced.

The Ohio State University, perhaps most famous for its marching band, public research endeavors, and legendary athletic teams, is not impervious to social media mockery, however.

Ohio University responded with this:

And the University of Michigan, OSU’s longtime sports rival, suggested that it should trademark of:

However bizarre this trademark may seem, it's far from the weirdest request th Patent and Trademark Office has ever received. Check out these colors and scents that are also trademarked.

[h/t Smithsonian.com]

Where Did the Term Brownie Points Come From?

bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images
bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images

In a Los Angeles Times column published on March 15, 1951, writer Marvin Miles observed a peculiar phrase spreading throughout his circle of friends and the social scene at large. While standing in an elevator, he overheard the man next to him lamenting “lost brownie points.” Later, in a bar, a friend of Miles's who had stayed out too late said he would never “catch up” on his brownie points.

Miles was perplexed. “What esoteric cult was this that immersed men in pixie mathematics?” he wrote. It was, his colleagues explained, a way of keeping “score” with their spouses, of tallying the goodwill they had accrued with the “little woman.”

Over the decades, the phrase brownie points has become synonymous with currying favor, often with authority figures such as teachers or employers. So where exactly did the term come from, and what happens when you “earn” them?

The most pervasive explanation is that the phrase originated with the Brownies, a subsect of the Girl Scouts who were encouraged to perform good deeds in their communities. The Brownies were often too young to be official Girl Scouts and were sometimes the siblings of older members. Originally called Rosebuds in the UK, they were renamed Brownies when the first troops were being organized in 1916. Sir Robert Baden-Powell, who had formed the Boy Scouts and was asked to name this new Girl Scout division, dubbed them Brownies after the magical creatures of Scottish folklore that materialized to selflessly help with household chores.

But the Brownies are not the only potential source. In the 1930s, kids who signed up to deliver magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Ladies' Home Journal from Curtis Publishing were eligible for vouchers labeled greenies and brownies that they could redeem for merchandise. They were not explicitly dubbed brownie points, but it’s not hard to imagine kids applying a points system to the brownies they earned.

The term could also have been the result of wartime rationing in the 1940s, where red and brown ration points could be redeemed for meats.

The phrase didn’t really seem to pick up steam until Miles's column was published. In this context, the married men speaking to Miles believed brownie points could be collected by husbands who remembered birthdays and anniversaries, stopped to pick up the dry cleaning, mailed letters, and didn’t spend long nights in pubs speaking to newspaper columnists. The goal, these husbands explained, was never to get ahead; they merely wanted to be considered somewhat respectable in the eyes of their wives.

Later, possibly as a result of its usage in print, grade school students took the phrase to mean an unnecessary devotion to teachers in order to win them over. At a family and faculty meeting at Leon High in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1956, earning brownie points was said to be a serious problem. Also called apple polishing, it prompted other students in class to shame their peers for being friendly to teachers. As a result, some were “reluctant to be civil” for fear they would be harassed for sucking up.

In the decades since that time, the idiom has become attached to any act where goodwill can be expected in return, particularly if it’s from someone in a position to reward the act with good grades or a promotion. As for Miles: the columnist declared his understanding of brownie points came only after a long night of investigation. Arriving home late, he said, rendered him “pointless.”

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