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Peanut gallery

Q From Steve Klimback: May I please ask what is the origin of the phrase peanut gallery in the context: ‘That is enough from the peanut gallery’. The only mildly plausible origin I could guess was in relation to a section of seats sold at plays.

A It does have a theatrical origin, and goes back to America at the end of the nineteenth century.

The peanut gallery was the topmost tier of seats, the cheapest in the house, a long way from the stage. The same seats in British theatres were (and still are) often called the gods because you were so high you seemed to be halfway to heaven, up there with the allegorical figures that were often painted on the ceiling.

On both sides of the Atlantic, these seats attracted an impecunious class of patron, with a strong sense of community, often highly irreverent and with a well-developed ability to heckle, hence the modern figurative meaning. A significant difference between the American and British theatres is that American patrons ate peanuts; these made wonderful missiles for showing their opinion of artistes they didn’t like.

Most Americans of a certain age will know the phrase because it was used in a slightly different sense in the fifties children’s television programme, the Howdy Doody Show. There it was the name for the ground-level seating for the kids, the “peanuts”, though the phrase was almost certainly derived from the older sense. They were just as noisy and irreverent as their theatrical forebears, or indeed the groundlings of Shakespeare’s time, with a liking for low humour and a total lack of sense or discrimination.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 26 Oct. 1998

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 26 October 1998.