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shameless pleading

Peanut gallery

Shaddup your face.

Dear Word Detective: My gym teacher always says “No comments from the peanut gallery” to this one group of kids in my PE class, then when I got home my step-dad said the same thing.  I was wondering, what does that mean? — Jessica.

Well, just for starters, it may mean you have the world’s oldest gym teacher.  Just kidding, of course.  But I’m mildly amazed that this phrase is still floating around out there and I’d be surprised if either your teacher or your step-dad knows what a real “peanut gallery” was.  I actually explained “no comments from the peanut gallery” back in the 1990s, but that was, after all, in the last century, so we’ll give it another go.

“Peanut gallery” goes back to the 19th century, which (for those of you whose schools dropped History class in favor of Media Studies) was before TV, the internet or even movies.  Entertainment back then was live and delivered for the most part in theaters that bore little resemblance to today’s mall multiplex.  The seating sections were steeply canted, and the higher and further from the stage a tier of seats was, the cheaper the tickets.  Thus the cheapest section in a large theater was all the way back and up, so close to the ceiling that they are today  sardonically called the “nosebleed seats” (referring to the fact that truly high altitudes cause nosebleeds in many people).  To the extent that opera houses and concert halls still exist in large cities in the US, the cheap seats are still up near the ceiling.

The folks who filled this upmost tier, or gallery, of seats tended to be less “refined” than the swanky lot in the seats down front, and they were known for their willingness to point out any perceived shortcomings of the actors on stage with boos, catcalls, and, occasionally, small projectiles.  Since peanuts were one of the favorite snacks of these rowdy folks (and made dandy missiles when the mood struck), this seating section became known as “the peanut gallery.”  Almost immediately, “peanut gallery” was pressed into service as a synonym for “the rabble” or “the hoi polloi.”  Interestingly, the first example of “peanut gallery” in print listed in the Oxford English Dictionary is of the phrase being used in this metaphorical sense (“As a bid for applause from the political pit and peanut gallery it was a masterpiece,” 1876).  So “No comments from the peanut galley” is another way of saying, “Be quiet, you little hooligans.”

But the fact that “peanut gallery” is still part of our common vocabulary is almost certainly due to the Howdy Doody Show, an immensely popular children’s TV show in the 1950s.  Howdy Doody (a marionette), Buffalo Bob (who provided Howdy’s voice), Clarabell the Clown, Princess Summerfall Winterspring and the rest of the cast performed with a studio audience of children seated in bleachers known as “the Peanut Gallery.”

Incidentally, so popular was “Howdy Doody” and his “Peanut Gallery” among a generation of children that in 1950, when United Features decided to syndicate Charles Schulz’s comic strip, then known as “Li’l Folk,” they insisted, over Schulz’s vigorous objections, on changing its name to “Peanuts.”

1 comment to Peanut gallery

  • Jeremy Austin

    A comment from the peanut gallery: how did “the hoi polloi” slip past your filter? It appears to be in fairly common usage, though, rather than the more pedantic way of using it without the English article. And speaking of articles, I enjoyed this one.

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