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.

30 Words and Phrases From Victorian Theatrical Slang

An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
suteishi/iStock via Getty Images

In 1909, the English writer James Redding Ware published a dictionary of 19th-century slang and colloquial language called Passing English of the Victorian Era. Relatively little is known about Ware’s life—not helped by the fact that much of his work was published under the pseudonym Andrew Forrester—but among the other works attributed to him are around a dozen stage plays, many of which were first performed in the theaters of London in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

It was this firsthand experience that undoubtedly helped Ware to flesh out his dictionary with a host of slang words and expressions used by Victorian actors, actresses, theatrical producers, and backstage workers. From nicknames for incoherent actors to mooching companions and noisy babies, although many of the entries in Ware’s Passing English have sadly long since dropped out of use, they’re no less useful or applicable today.

1. Agony Piler

An actor who always seems to perform in weighty or sensationalist parts.

2. Back-Row Hopper

An audience member who visits bars frequented by actors and flatters them into buying him a drink.

3. Blue Fire

“Blue fire” was originally the name of a special effect used in Victorian theaters in which a mixture containing sulfur would be ignited to create an eerie blue glow on stage. The effect astonished audiences at the time, who had never seen anything like it before, hence "blue fire" came to be used to describe anything equally amazing or sensational, or that astounded an audience.

4. Bum-Boozer

A heavy drinker.

5. Burst

The sudden swell of people out onto a street when a play ended.

6. Button-Buster

A terrible comedian.

7. Celestials

Also known as “roof-scrapers,” the celestials were the audience members in the “gods” or the gallery, the highest tier of seats in the theater.

8. Charles His Friend

A nickname for any uninspiring part in a play whose only purpose is to give the main protagonist someone to talk to. The term apparently derives from a genuine list of the characters in a now long-forgotten drama, in which the lead’s companion was listed simply as “Charles: his friend.”

9. Deadheads

Audience members who haven’t paid to get in (as opposed to those who have, who were the livestock). Consequently, a nickname for journalists and first-night critics.

10. Decencies

A term referring to an actor’s strategically padded costume, defined by Ware as “pads used by actors, as distinct from actresses, to ameliorate outline.”

11. FLABBERDEGAZ

A fluffed line, a stumbled word, or a mistimed joke. Also called a Major Macfluffer.

12. The Ghost Walks

A reference to the famous opening scene of Hamlet, saying that “the ghost walks” (or, more often than not, that “the ghost doesn’t walk”) meant that there was (or that there wasn’t) enough money to be paid that week.

13. Gin And Fog

Hoarseness caused by heavy drinking the night before.

14. Greedy Scene

A scene in a play in which the lead actor has the stage all to him or herself.

15. Joey

To mug to the audience, or to lark about to attract someone’s attention.

16. Logie

A fake gemstone, or fake jewelry in general. Supposedly named after David Logie, an inventor who manufactured fake jewels out of zinc.

17. Matinée Dog

A nickname for the audience of a matinee performance. To "try it on the matinee dog" meant to test a new act or a new reading of a scene during a daytime performance, as the afternoon audiences were considered less discerning than the more seasoned and more demanding evening audiences.

18. Mumble-Mumper

An old, inarticulate performer whose lines cannot be easily heard or interpreted by the audience.

19. On The Pross

If you’re on the pross then you’re looking for someone to buy you a drink or a meal—pross is a shortening of “prosperous,” in the sense of searching for someone wealthy enough to buy you dinner.

20. Palatic

Very, very drunk. Probably derived from a deliberate mispronunciation of “paralytic."

21. To Play to The Gas

To make just enough money to get by—literally just enough to pay your gas bill.

22. Scorpions

An actor’s nickname for babies, whose constant noise could ruin a performance.

23. Star-Queller

An inferior actor whose terrible performance ruins the excellent performances given by everyone else.

24. Swan-Slinger

The playwright Ben Jonson famously called Shakespeare “The sweet swan of Avon” in a memorial poem published in 1623. A swan-slinger, consequently, is a Shakespearean actor.

25. To Take a Dagger And Drown Yourself

To say one thing but then do another. To stab yourself and pass the bottle, meanwhile, meant to take a swig of a drink and then pass the bottle onto the next person.

26. Thinking Part

A role in which an actor is required to say little or nothing at all. Likewise, a feeder was any role in which an actor was only required to “feed” lines to the more important character.

27. Toga-Play

Also called BC-plays, toga-plays were either classical period dramas, like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, or plays by classical-era playwrights.

28. Twelve-Pound Actor

A child born into an acting family.

29. Village Blacksmith

“The Village Blacksmith” is the title of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the third verse of which begins, “Week in, week out, from morn till night, / You can hear his bellows blow.” It was the “week in, week out” line that inspired this expression referring to a performer or worker who isn’t a complete failure, but whose contracts rarely last longer than a single week.

30. Whooperup

A terrible singer.

[This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019]

What's the Difference Between a College and a University?

Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images
Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images

Going off to college is a milestone in any young adult’s life. The phrase itself conjures up images of newfound independence, exposure to new perspectives, knowledge, and possibly even one or more sips of alcohol.

In America, however, few people use the phrase “going off to university,” or “headed to university,” even if they are indeed about to set off for, say, Harvard University. Why did college become the predominant term for postsecondary education? And is there any difference between the two institutions?

While university appears to be the older of the two terms, dating as far back as the 13th century, schools and students in North America have embraced college to describe most places of higher learning. There is no rigid definition of the words, but there are some general attributes for each. A college is typically a four-year school that offers undergraduate degrees like an associate or a bachelor’s. (Community colleges are often two-year schools.) They don’t typically offer master’s or doctorates, and the size of their student body is typically the smaller of the two.

Universities, on the other hand, tend to offer both undergraduate and graduate programs leading to advanced degrees for a larger group of students. They can also be comprised of several schools—referred to as colleges—under their umbrella. A university could offer both a school of arts and sciences and a school of business. The University of Michigan has a College of Engineering, for example.

While many of these traits are common, they’re not guaranteed. Some colleges can be bigger than universities, some might offer master’s degrees, and so on. To complicate matters further, an institution that fits the criteria of a university might choose to call itself a college. Both Dartmouth College and Boston College qualify as universities but use the college label owing to tradition. Schools may begin as colleges, grow into universities, but retain the original name.

People tend to think of a university as being more prestigious or harder to get into, but there are too many variables to make that determination at a glance. Some colleges might ask more of applicants than universities. Some universities might be smaller than certain colleges. Either one can be public or private.

Things get a little more convoluted abroad. In the UK, students go off to university (or uni) instead of college. The British version of college is typically a two-year program where students either focus on learning one particular skill set (much like a vocational school) or use the time to prepare for exams so that they can advance to university. Language matters, too; in Spanish, colegio usually refers to high school.

While the terms aren’t strictly interchangeable, there is enough of a difference between the two to try and make the distinction. Keep in mind that some states, like New Jersey, have rules about how institutions label themselves. There, a university has to have at least three fields of graduate study leading to advanced degrees.

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