One of the more popular news commentators this week was heard calling the politicians in Washington “a bunch of clowns.” Lest any of you reading this get your feelings hurt thinking that I’m passing along a remark that was intended towards any particular person or political party, let me clarify that I believe he meant the whole gang of politicians in Washington, and wasn’t qualifying his statement to any clique. This blog strives for political neutrality and believes that the term clown, being one of the more inoffensive remarks that can be made when referring to our elective leaders, is extremely appropriate and almost always well-timed.
This use of the word clown, as a contemptuous fool, is very close to the traditional notion of a clown, but is slightly different. Historically, the clown has been a bumbling fool, but not necessarily worthy of our contempt. In fact, the idea has always been that the clown is a comedic fellow worthy of laughter and possibly our sympathy. Actually, now that I think about it, maybe the two definitions are closer upon examination than I originally thought. Either way, the word clown originally referred to a country farmer. And the word’s etymological roots lie in the word colonus, Latin for farmer. Colonus gives us numerous words in English, including colonist.
Later, the idea of clown evolved from husbandman to a caricature of a farmer – the coarse rustic rube from down off the farm. In this modification of the word’s meaning we get the fellow whose unsophisticated ways are the object of our scorn and laughter, but we still don’t quite have the guy with the orange hair and red nose – not quite yet. For that interpretation of the word, we have to look back to Italy, but long after the fall of Rome.
In the 1540’s, noted writer and composer, Castelleti, staged a comedy production whereby a character by the name of Pierro was introduced. He wore a long, baggy white tunic with oversized buttons and a floppy ruff (from the ruff neckband we get the word ruffle). He also wore short trousers, a straw hat, a mask and oversized shoes. He was a teller of jokes and funny stories. Later in the century, Pagliaccio was a recurrent character in Italian comedies, his name meaning literally inferior straw, and was a clear relative of Pierro. Both characters incorporated, through their dress and actions, the notion of a simpleton from the sticks. Later a version of the same character appeared in French comedies as Pierrot, by now adding a whitened face and a conical hat.
With the addition of bright colors to the outfit, some red-painted lips and cheeks, the clown costume has changed little over the past five centuries. So while we may look at a clown’s costume and think he looks very much a like a modern figure, he has been with us for quite some time. And the idea of clown as politician is likely to be with us for an even longer time to come.
For some uncommon words that are close synonyms to clown, here’s a list:
antic n. a buffoon; a prankster.
archimime n. one who clowns around.
auguste n. a circus clown considered the most comical of all clowns, the name is derived from the German for fool, and the appearance employs a wide mouth, exaggerated eyes, and large red ball nose.
balatron n. a joker; one who clowns.
dizzard n. [Obsolete] a fool; a jester.
gracioso n. a traditional clown in Spanish comedy.
harlequin n. a stock character in commedia dell’arte, appearing in pantomime and ballet as a clown.
joey n. a clown in a circus or pantomime.
merry-andrew n. a person who clowns around in public.
monument n. [Scottish] a person whose behavior provokes ridicule.
pantaloon n. a buffoon in pantomimes; typically an old feeble man who is the butt of another clown’s actions.
patch n. a clown; booby.
Punchinello n. a clown or buffoon from a common character in Italian puppet shows.
scaramouch n. a cowardly buffoon.
tomfool n. a professional clown, esp. one acting in a play or pageant.
zanni n. a clown, similar in appearance to a Harlequin, used as a stock character in traditional Italian Commedia dell’Arte, having a black mask and playing the part of a comic servant who indulges in acrobatic tricks and antics; from this word we get zany.