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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: All the World's a Stage

The many words and phrases, originating in theater or theatrical activities, are examined. Origins are clarified and the connections between our ancestors' uses of these and our use of them today is examined.


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In honor of our ancestors who either performed in or attended the theater, this "Lexicon" article will look at some of the common terms that had their beginnings in the world of the thespian.

Let us begin with the stage and theater itself. Most of us have ancestors who were involved in their town's or region's church, probably attending services to listen to the minister preach from the pulpit, but how many realize that "pulpit" is a term that came from the drama field? Traveling troupes of actors would construct a pulpitrum - an elevated platform that allowed the audience to see the action - creating impromptu stages for their performances. This use of height to project the message was borrowed by the church and soon the term pulpit had a much more reverent connotation than its prior theater association (Garrison, Why You Say it, p. 220).

But in years before this use of an elevated stage was in vogue, the performance platform was constructed so that the rear of the stage was higher than the front portion; actors who stood at the back of the stage, furthest from the audience, were higher than those in the front, closer to the audience. An actor who intentionally would stand to the back of the stage would force the other performers to put their backs to the audience in order to speak to him (this was in times before there were female performers). It was common for the "actor king" to take that position, but if a lesser performer were to be so presumptuous, he would be said to "upstage" the others. Today we use that term to refer to anyone who is trying to get attention away from others (Castle, p. 252).

Many of us have ancestors who worked in mines, usually coal, or other valuable ore. Perhaps some of us have ancestors who mined calcium oxide (lime), providing the local theaters with a valuable commodity. Lime was the mineral used to project light onto the stage. When heated, this substance could draw attention to the lighted object or, in the case of the theater, the actor, who would then be in the "limelight" (Morris & Morris, pp. 352-353). This term, often used to refer to anyone at the center of attention, was not in common usage until the late 1870s. Our ancestors often employed the use of dynamite to clear an area of land or get rid of a stubborn stump. Explosions were not uncommon in the settling of this country, but the fact that the word "explode" has its origin in the theatrical world probably would surprise even the most learned pioneer. When the performer was especially liked by the audience, they would (and still do) applaud the actor's efforts. This behavior goes back to ancient Rome where actors would command a plaudite - hand clapping - from the audience. If, however, the audience was displeased with what they viewed, they would "clap out" (ex plaudo or explode) the actors off the stage (no doubt with a few vocal "boos" as well). Early critics of the theater would report that a performer had been "exploded off the stage" (Funk, Word Origins, p. 294). It is hard to envision our pioneer ancestors, in an attempt to remove that stubborn stump, standing next to it, clapping furiously!

It seems that there are a lot of theater terms that refer to negative behavior and, in particular, actions that involve grabbing attention. Dramatist John Dennis, back around the year 1700, invented a machine that was effective in producing a sound that was reminiscent of thunder. This machine was utilized in one of his plays until, as often happens, the production folded. Soon thereafter, when attending a performance of Macbeth at the same theater, Dennis was incensed to find his thunder machine in use. He allegedly stated, "They will not let my play run, and yet they steal my thunder!" This phrase has endured long after the name of John Dennis disappeared (Garrison, What's in a Word?, pp. 56-57) and we might use it to refer to times when we find documentation that one ancestor bested another by taking advantage of the latter.

Let us take a look at the actor him/herself. Often we use the term "ham" or "ham actor," implying that the individual is something of a hog when it comes to attention. The term originated with amateur theater when a low-grade actor would be termed a "hamfatter," no doubt in reference to the material (ham fat) used to remove theatrical makeup (Funk, Heavens to Betsy, p. 43). Actors, in general, are known to be pretenders: that was and still is the nature of the occupation. In Greek, that term is hypokrites, meaning "to pretend." Today we continue to use the term, but have altered the arena: now we call one who is pretending to be pious (an actor in matters spiritual) a "hypocrite" (Garrison, What's in a Word?, pp. 53-54). Most of us dislike hypocritical behavior (at least in areas involving values or spiritual issues) and hope that we don't find ancestors who engage in such activities.

Particularly in the western frontier, residents of small towns enjoyed a break from mining, ranching, farming, or lumbering exploits and were excited to learn that an acting troupe would be coming to town. Posters, or bills, would be nailed to buildings around town to advertise the coming attraction, but often these advertisements, posted weeks in advance of the show, would make elaborate claims of the sights to behold. When the troupe would come to town, it would then have to use every bit of skill and talent of the group to "fill the bill" (Garrison, Why You Say it, pp. 225-226). Today the term continues to be used in much the same way: those putting together genealogical conferences often have to scramble to fill the bill of the program they have promised!

Using that same term from above - troupe - we can find the perceived origin of another slang term: "to swear like a trooper." People in the acting profession were not very highly regarded, so to believe that the phrase was originally "to swear like a trouper" - one of those low-life actors - seems to make sense. However, Charles Earle Funk believes that the phrase really originates from the cavalry and that "trooper" is the correct term (Heavens to Betsy, p. 101) (not hard to accept when we read some of the quotes uttered by our soldier ancestors).

But not every performer on stage is human. The early marionette shows allowed the puppeteers to express certain ideas or share pieces of local gossip that would be frowned upon, at the very least, by those in the audience. Under the disguise of "dolls," which were at the mercy of the one "pulling the strings," the puppeteer could get away with any number of insults, but this did not go without notice and soon the influential figures would do favors for the puppeteer in an effort to buy silence. In this way, the real "string puller" was the one with the political (and financial) influence (Mordock & Korach, p. 118). While this refers to France, back centuries before many of our ancestors moved to this country, the behavior of string pulling was not foreign to the early colonists! They were well aware of their British "benefactors" and the strings that were pulled to keep the colonists in line, something that backfired one day in Boston in 1773.

Puppet shows also bring us the phrase "pleased as punch." No, it does not refer to the concoction that we serve at parties; it is attributed to Punch, the clown character of the puppet show "Punch and Judy." Punchinello, the English version of Pulcinello, the creation of 1600s Italian Silvio Fiorillo, was popular in England about the time our earliest ancestors left to settle the new land (Funk, Hog on Ice, p. 65). When we read about our ancestors doing courageous things, we are often as pleased, or proud, as Punch about them and our connection to them.

When we think of our forebears, we prefer to envision them as honorable people (who never swear like troopers or troupers). We put them in the limelight, pleased as Punch about their accomplishments, and maybe even excusing the times when they upstage or steal the thunder of others! We prefer to believe them not to be hams or hypocrites and we will stand on the pulpits and applaud (never explode) their efforts. As we learn more about who our ancestors were, filling the bill that is our pedigree, we hope that those who pull the strings when it comes to document availability will not prevent us from learning more about these special people whose very lives made ours possible.


Castle. Why Do We Say it? The Stories behind the Words, Expressions and Cliches We Use.

Seacaucus, NJ: Book Sales, Inc., 1985.

Funk, C. E. Heavens to Betsy & Other Curious Sayings. New York: Harper & Row, 1955.

Funk, C. w. Hog on Ice & Other Curious Expressions. New York: Harper & Row, 1948.

Funk, W. Word Origins and their Romantic Stories. New York: Bell Publishing Co., 1978.

Garrison, W. B. What's in a Word? Fascinating Stories of More than 350 Everyday Words and Phrases. Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 2000.

Garrison, W. B. Why You Say it: The Fascinating Stories behind over 700 Everyday Words and Phrases. New York: Abingdon Press, 1955.

Mordock, J. & Korach, M. Common Phrases and Where They Came from. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2001.

Morris, W. & Morris, M. Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, 2nd Ed. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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