If I’ve learnt anything in the last couple of weeks it’s that working a nine-to-five-thirty job doing writey typey things is not conducive to frequent blogging. That being said, I have had time to muse on a couple of interesting words here and there, including the word muse.

First of all, you might think that artistic inspiration would be linked to being absorbed in thought but actually the noun muse and the verb to muse are completely different, unrelated words, which just happen to be homonyms (words which are spelt the same but have different meanings).

Muse the noun came into English in the late 14th century from Latin via Old French. The original word was the Greek Mousa, which meant ‘the Muse’ as well as ‘music, song’. According to Greek legend, the nine Muses were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne and were each responsible for a different area of the arts and sciences.

The noun can be traced back even further to the PIE root *men- which meant ‘to think, remember’, which is similar in meaning to the modern verb to muse, although this is purely by coincidence. It is from this muse that we got the words museum, originally a ‘shrine for the Muses’; mosaic, which was ‘work of the Muses’; and music, ‘pertaining to the Muses’.

The verb to muse, on the other hand, means ‘to reflect, to be absorbed in thought’. It came into English at roughly the same time as the noun, in the 14th century, and through the same source language: French. The French word, muser, meant ‘to ponder, to dream’ and also ‘to loiter, to waste time’ but the medieval Latin word it came from, musum, meant ‘snout’ and relates to the modern English word muzzle. So what’s the connection? It could either be because a person who is musing is standing with their nose in the air or because they are sniffing about, like a dog that’s lost the scent. Since both words arrived in the language in the same period, it’s also possible that the noun had an influence on the meaning of the verb.

Now, there are two important words that come from to muse: amuse and bemuse. The a- prefix in amuse means ‘to cause’, which, in the late 15th century, lead to ‘to cause to muse, to divert’ and the primary meaning was ‘to deceive, to cheat’ well until the 18th century. From this, it became ‘to divert from serious business’ and then later ‘to entertain’. It is actually bemuse which has retained more of the original meaning of amuse: the be- prefix can equally mean ‘to cause’ as well as ‘thoroughly’, so someone who is bemused is utterly confused.


It’s behind you!

It’s one of our great British Christmas traditions and no doubt families will be flocking into theatres across the country over the next few weeks to get festive with a classic pantomime. For us Brits, there’s nothing we love more than a good old panto with risqué innuendos aplenty, B-list celebrities, much-loved audience participation, and a man in drag in some outlandish get-up. It’s a source of great national pride.panto

For any non-Brit readers, it probably sounds a bit eccentric. Pantomimes are performed around the Christmas period and are popular with children, although there are many cheeky jokes aimed at adults which generally go over the kids’ heads. The story will vary between productions but they are all loosely based on a popular fairy tale or children’s story such as Cinderella or Aladdin.

Pantomime as we know it allegedly originated around 1710 and was popularised in the Victorian era but the word itself goes back to Ancient Greece. The Greek pantomimos means ‘actor’ or literally ‘imitator of all’ from panto- ‘all’ and mimos ‘imitator’. It was then loaned into Latin with the meaning ‘mime, dancer’ and reached English by the 1610s as ‘mime actor’. The word then evolved from denoting the actors to referring to the show itself and many conventions of the Italian ‘Comedia dell’ Arte’ were adopted, including several of the stock characters and an emphasis on song and dance.

Another offshoot of ‘Comedia dell’ Arte’ is slapstick comedy, which today means ‘farcical physical comedy’. The lead male in ‘Comedia dell’ Arte’ was Harlequin, a magical character with a wooden sword that would be used sometimes as a weapon and sometimes as a wand. This sword would make a loud slapping noise when used, so as to make slapping other characters more comical. Thus, the joke was slapstick. To this day, a drummer in the orchestra pit will highlight and accentuate a slapstick joke with a slapping noise.

So for the next time you see Buttons or Widow Twankey, you’ll know exactly where pantomime and slapstick com from. Now you just need to refine your hisses, boos and oh no it is isn’ts!

For more on the history and evolution of pantomime, read on: