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shameless pleading


How does he make his voice do that?

Dear Word Detective:  What is the root and meaning of the word “ventriloquist”? — Joe Parsons.

That’s a good question, but in the course of researching it, I began to wonder how many of our younger readers have actually ever seen a ventriloquist.  In the 1950s and 60s, of course, they seemed to be everywhere.  Ventriloquists were a staple of the Ed Sullivan TV show, ranging from Edgar Bergen and Charley McCarthy, to Paul Winchell with his wooden pal Jerry Mahoney, to Senor Wences, whose sidekick Johnny consisted of a face drawn on the side of Wences’ hand.  My absolute favorite was Shari Lewis and the immortal Lamb Chop, a sheep hand puppet sporting abnormally long eyelashes.  I actually own a replica of Lamb Chop that I drag out of the closet every so often to annoy the cats.  I also have a duplicate of the rubber dog hand puppet that appears on Conan O’Brien’s show as Triumph the Insult Dog.  My dog puppet actually predates Conan’s show, though I’m not sure I should brag about that.

Meanwhile, for the benefit of our benighted readers who have never seen a “ventriloquist,” the word means a performer who, usually working with a wooden dummy or puppet, appears to make the character talk by speaking without moving his or her lips.  A good ventriloquist can not only pull off this basic parlor trick, but create such a complete character in the “dummy” that the dialog between the two seems entirely natural.

Although “ventriloquy” (or “ventriloquism,” the words are interchangeable) is today a form of humorous entertainment, the origins of the term lie in a practice that was deadly serious and more than just a little creepy.  The word “ventriloquism” comes from the Latin “ventriloquus,” meaning “speaking from the belly” (“venter,” belly, plus “loqui,” speak).  So far, so good.  “Speaking from the belly” is a plausible metaphor for ventriloquism.

But “ventriloquus” was no metaphor.  It was believed by the Ancient Greeks (who called the phenomenon “eggastrimuthos”) and Romans that noises emanating from a person’s belly could be the voices of the spirits of the dead or, in the worst-case scenario, a sign of demonic possession.  A “ventriloquist” (later called a “gastromancer”) was a seer or psychic who interpreted the sounds coming from the person’s abdomen and, depending on the supposed  source, passed along predictions of the future, messages from great-grandma, or bad news about the spiritual future of the patient.

Ventriloquism and gastromancy as a means of divination persisted through the Middle Ages and even up to the 18th century in Europe and America.  Eventually, however, as the public ardor for spiritualism flowered into the age of stage magic, the term “ventriloquism” came to be used for the trick of “throwing one’s voice” in front of an audience.   By the late 19th century, “ventriloquy” was a standard act in the repertoire of vaudeville, and the wooden ventriloquist’s dummy had become an icon of popular culture.  Interestingly, however, ventriloquy has never been able to completely shed its overtones of creepiness, as the number of horror movies involving a ventriloquist’s dummy which moves around quite well on its own attests.

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