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From early doors to blood-tub: language relating to theatre

The lure of the greasepaint has long attracted people, from Mrs Worthington’s daughter to the latest contestants on reality shows to pick the next star of a West End remake. So on World Theatre Day, await the swish of the curtain, don’t let the super troupers blind you, and get ready to tread the boards as we explore some of the vocabulary associated with the theatre – some familiar, some perhaps less so.

The early bird gets the best choice

Early doors, meaning “near the beginning” is a phrase much beloved of football managers but it has its origins in the theatre nearly a century before. Referring to a period of admission sometime before the start of a production, when a wider selection of seating was available, usually at a higher price,  the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first records this sense in 1883, in an advertisement in the Times newspaper for a performance of Sinbad: “Drury-Lane.Sinbad. Every evening at 7.15… Early doors to unreserved parts 6d. extra

What’s that smell?

If an actor is said to pong, don’t assume that there is a personal hygiene issue. Said actor is probably either projecting or else expanding the original text of whatever play is being performed with additional words of his or her making (not something likely to meet with the approval of the author, perhaps). A related word is gag, which is defined in the OED as a word not present in the original dramatic text but interpolated by the actor.  Both senses date back to the 19th century, and are less common in modern usage. Whether this is to do with the reluctance of actors to incur the wrath of a playwright by messing with the text, is not clear.

One thing that any self-respecting thespian wants to avoid is corpsing. Theatrically speaking, this is much less dramatic than it sounds. It refers to forgetting one’s lines while on stage. It can also mean to laugh uncontrollably whilst on stage. Neither option seems appealing in front of an expectant audience. An even earlier sense recorded in the OED is to confuse another actor by making a mistake on stage or to spoil a scene by making a blunder.

There’s no business like show business

Surprisingly, business has more than one theatrical meaning. Since 1637, it has meant the action that occurs onstage that is distinct from the dialogue. It can also mean something that modern producers can identify with only too well – the receipts! Given the OED’s first date of 1755 in this sense, the idea of bums on seats has clearly been a concern for centuries. One way to achieve this might be to paper the house, which is to give out free tickets for a performance in order to fill the theatre, something that theatres have been doing since 1859. The noun, referring to the actual tickets, is even older. The OED’s first example is from 1785 and refers to a performance of Romeo and Juliet in Drury Lane, London.  Paperer is also used to describe the organization or person issuing the free tickets. The use of the adjective, papered, to describe a theatre that has been filled by means of these free tickets was not in use until the mid-20th century.

A theatre by any other name?

There are more colourful terms available to describe the place where luvvies tread the boards. A blood-tub is a colloquial British term for a theatre (or cinema) with a reputation for presenting violent or sensational material, especially lurid melodramas. Or if you prefer laughs to gore, how about a droll house? That’s a place where comedies or farces are acted out, although the term has now fallen out of use. For the more austere theatre-goer, black box describes a particular type of performance space typically reserved for minimalist or experimental productions. As the name might suggest, it consists of a rectangular room with plain black walls, and also has an unraked floor which can serve as a stage and flexible seating arrangements. Or how about a private house? In the 17th century, this was the name given to a type of small enclosed theatre, and is rather neatly described in a quotation from 1891, cited in the OED: “The Cockpit in Drury Lane‥a small theatre, one of those which, before the Civil War, were called ‘Private Houses’. In these the performances took place by candlelight, whereas the larger, or public playhouses, being partly open to the weather, were used only in daylight.”

Walls come tumbling down

Most people are probably familiar with the idea of the fourth wall in fiction, or rather the breaking of it. It’s the conceptual barrier between any fictional work and its viewers or readers. What might be less well known is that it has theatrical origins. The fourth wall refers to the proscenium opening in a theatre through which the audience sees the performance of a play.

If the fourth wall is a space, what then of the ceiling?  The space above a stage can be an important place, as seen in Greek theatre. Actors representing gods were suspended above the stage, with the denouement of the play being brought about by their intervention. It is from this concept, that we get the phrase deus ex machina, an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as a contrived plot device in a play or novel.  It is a translation of the Greek theos ek mēkhanēs, ‘god from the machinery’, which refers to the mechanism which allowed the actors to descend to the stage, and save the day in the nick of time.

Everything’s Gone Green

Green is an unexpectedly significant colour when it comes to the theatre. In the first third of the 20th century, it entered the lexicon as rhyming slang for stage (greengage – stage), especially in the phrase ‘be on the green’. But that’s not where the association ends. Green curtain is another term for the stage curtain, referring to it traditionally being made from a green-coloured material and in theatre slang this was called a greeny.  And of course the green room – that area where performers can relax when they are off stage. The reason why such areas are called green rooms is not clear. It may be as simple as the fact that the walls of such a room were originally painted green. One quotation cited in the OED hints at that “No, Madam: Selfish, this Evening, in a green Room, behind the Scenes, was before-hand with me”. Numerous other explanations have also been suggested although none have any corroborating evidence.

Where to sit?

If the circle, stalls, and gods are all too obvious, how about sitting in the peanut gallery?  This is a colloquial and depreciative term to refer to the cheapest seats in a theatre. Those sitting in the peanut gallery were regarded as the most vocal or rowdy section of the audience, and perhaps likely to throw peanuts (an inexpensive snack) at on-stage performers who didn’t meet with their approval. Contrast this with green box (it’s that colour again) which is an upper box in a theatre. Happily, the etymology of this is known. It comes from the colour of the baize cloth used to decorate the boxes at the Drury Lane Theatre, London, which is mentioned in the OED’s earliest quotation.

The origin of the idiom stealing someone’s thunder also has roots in the theatre, and can be pinpointed to an exclamation from an actor-manager, angry that a playhouse continued to use his thunder machine after cancelling his play. Read our blog post to learn more about the story.


The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.