Theatre & Drama: Etymology 101

Theatre & Drama: Etymology 101


“All the world’s a stage,

and all the men and women merely players.

They have their exits and entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages.  At first the infant,

Mewling and Puking in the nurse’s arms.

Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,

Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,

Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,

Jealous in honor, sudden, and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,

In fair round belly with good capon lined,

With eyes sever and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,

His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,

That ends this strange, eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

                                    –Jaques, As You Like It, (2.7.138-165), 1599/1600


While this may be the most boring way imaginable to begin my blog, Drama, Daily, the academic in me feels compelled to define the terms that underpin my blog’s dual theme: the life of drama and the drama of life.


In ancient Greece, the verb infinitive theatre meant to behold.  Theatrum was a place for viewing.  The word drama referred to an action, a deed, a play, especially a tragedy.  The first entry of the word in English usage, found in OED and dated 1515, provides the most common meaning: a composition in prose or verse to be staged and conveyed via dialogue and action and accompanied by costume, gesture, scenery as in real life, a play.  An entry dated 1930 indicates the word’s non-theatrical meaning: the dramatic-quality, colorfulness or excitement that characterizes something.  The oft-used and largely derogatory term “drama queen,” which can be found in an entry dated 1923, describes a person who overreacts to a minor setback, a person prone to exaggeratedly dramatic behaviors, and a person who thrives on being the center of attention.  Interestingly, the first English usage entry for the term drag queen is dated 1943.  The word theatrical, which carried a meaning similar, though less disparaging, to drama queen, was used as early as 1649 to describe behavior that resembles the manner of an actor, behavior that is artificial, affected.  Circa 1710 theatrical took on a more derogatory meaning in line with drama queen: having the style of dramatic performance, extravagantly or irrelevantly histrionic, ‘stagy,’ calculated for display, showy, spectacular.  As early as 1837, the term theatricality, the quality of being theatrical, entered into English usage and was used both as a synonym for a play or dramatic performance and also, significantly, to characterize the dramatic nature of something mundane, non-theatrical.  A final term worth noting, performative, was brought into mainstream usage with J. L. Austen’s 1962 work, How to Do Things with Words, though OED dates the first use of the word back to 1922.  A performative is an utterance that, consciously or not, effects, brings about, an action. Following Austen, Judith Butler has theorized the performativity of gender roles.


One Response to “Theatre & Drama: Etymology 101”
  1. Erika Robuck says:

    I look forward to reading Drama, Daily.


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