I’ve finally watched episode one of Series Two of Poldark – no spoilers! – and the audience in the court scene made me think of a word for this week whose meaning has stayed essentially same through the years…except that it is no longer acceptable for use in the theatre, but rather everywhere else. Especially in broad daylight on busy sidewalks in metropolitan areas.
Cat Call (noun)
A kind of whistle, chiefly used at theatres, to interrupt the actors, and damn a new piece. It derives its name from one of its sounds, which greatly resembles the modulation of an intriguing boar cat. 1650s, a type of noisemaker (Johnson describes it as a “squeaking instrument”) used to express dissatisfaction in play-houses, from cat (n.) + call (n.); presumably because it sounded like an angry cat. As a verb, attested from 1734.
A diary entry concerning cat calling:
Dr. Adams was present the first night of the representation of IRENE, and gave me the following account:
“Before the curtain drew up, there were catcalls whistling, which alarmed Johnson’s friends. The Prologue, which was written by himself in a manly strain, soothed the audience 2, and the play went off tolerably till it came to the conclusion, when Mrs. Pritchard, the heroine of the piece, was to be strangled upon the stage, and was to speak two lines with the bow-string round her neck. The audience cried out “Murder, murder.” She several times attempted to speak, but in vain. At last she was obliged to go off the stage alive.” ~From The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell
I found an interesting take on the contemporary cat call, to see how far it’s evolved, for lack of a better descriptor. It’s interesting to hear the audience response and how it hearkens back to the original definition of a cat call – the interruption of the actor – minus the intent to damn. The audience clearly appreciates the effort of this modern balladeer: its snaps and hoots are accolades of a most affirming nature.
- Slang term taken from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue and the Online Etymological Dictionary.
- Read more from The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D: comprehending an account of his studies and numerous works, … In two volumes by James Boswell, Esq.