How Did the Standing Ovation Originate?

iStock
iStock

Applause is one of those cultural rituals so ingrained in our habits that to clap is a nearly subconscious act. However, the choice to remain clapping—and, at times, to stand while doing so—is very intentional. But when did the standing ovation begin? 

Like many facets of our culture, this one dates back to Ancient Rome. Although today’s society counts a standing ovation as one of the highest forms of flattery, it was actually a tier below one of Rome’s most honorary celebrations. At the time, a “triumph” was a rite conducted to publicly acknowledge a commander who led the Roman forces to a great military victory.

In contrast, the definition of an ovation is derived from the Latin for “I rejoice” and while it’s still a pretty big deal, it’s a step down from a triumph: “A ceremony attending the entering of Rome by a general who had won a victory of less importance than that for which a triumph was granted.”

Fast forward a few centuries or so, and standing ovations are solidified in modern culture. In a 2003 op-ed piece for The New York Times, Jesse McKinley supposed that standing ovations became associated with theater around the 17th century, but noted that many historians cite the origin to the years following World War II. In fact, there’s even a (fantastically named) theory to support this claim.

According to McKinley, American musical scholar Ethan Mordden came up with the “Big Lady Theory.” In productions around the 1950s (My Fair Lady is cited as an example), the music left barely any time for the cast to bow during a curtain call. However, when musicals evolved to showcase a star performer—think Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly!—the production was staged to accommodate a longer bow.

''The whole curtain call is built to a climax,'' Mordden said. ''The ensemble bows and sings. The male leads bow, and supporting women, and everything builds and builds and builds, and then when everyone's attention is focused, the star comes out in her 37th Bob Mackie gown of the evening. By that point, you have no choice but get to your feet.''

Standing ovations are so ingrained in our culture that we’ve reached a point where certain ones get additional recognition. For example, iconic actor Charlie Chaplin was given an Honorary Award at the 1972 Oscars. According to Harper’s Bazaar, his 12-minute standing ovation remains the longest in the award ceremony's history.

Sports are another area where standing ovations remain common. Cal Ripken, Jr. is widely reported to have received one of the longest ovations in athletic history. On September 6, 1995, Ripken broke the record for most consecutive games played in the Major League Baseball—and the stadium saluted him by standing and cheering for 22 minutes. Despite being honored by thousands that day, Ripken remains modest about the applause.

“It was really, really long,” he told Baltimore Magazine in a 2015 interview. “I was embarrassed because you don’t stop a game in the middle. Pitchers are warming up; players have a rhythm. So I was like, ‘I’ll celebrate afterward as much as you guys want, but let’s get this game going.’”

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Why Are We So Scared of Clowns?

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

With the recent box office-smashing success of Stephen King's It, it’s safe to say that coulrophobia (fear of clowns) isn’t a fringe phenomenon. The colorful circus performers are right up there with vampires and werewolves on the list of iconic horror villains. But unlike other movie monsters, clowns were originally meant to make kids laugh, not hide under their beds in terror. So what is it about clowns that taps into our deepest fears?

According to Yale doctoral candidate Danielle Bainbridge, the unsettling clown stereotype goes back centuries. In the inaugural episode of the PBS digital series Origin of Everything, Bainbridge explained the long history of this pervasive part of our culture.

Before clowns wore floppy shoes and threw pies at each other’s faces, early versions of the performers could be found in royal courts. The court jester wasn’t evil, but he was the only person in the kingdom who could poke fun at the monarch without fear of (literally) losing his head. The fact that fools didn’t fall within the normal social hierarchy may have contributed to the future role clowns would play as untrustworthy outsiders.

From the medieval era, clowns evolved into the harlequins of 16th-century Italian theater. Again, these weren’t bloodthirsty monsters, but they weren’t exactly kid-friendly either. The characters were often mischievous and morally bankrupt, and their strange costumes and masks only added to the creepy vibes they gave off.

Fast-forward to the 19th century, when the white-faced circus clowns we know today started gaining popularity. Unlike the jesters and harlequins that came before them, these clowns performed primarily for children and maintained a wholesome image. But as pop culture in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s showed us, that old perception we had of clowns as nefarious troublemakers never really went away. Steven King’s It, the cult classic Killer Clowns From Outer Space (1988), and that scene from Poltergeist (1982) all combined these original fears with the more modern association of clowns with children. That formula gave us one of the most frightening figures in horror media today.

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Why Do We Call a Leg Cramp a Charley Horse?

iStock.com/Jan-Otto
iStock.com/Jan-Otto

If you’re unlucky enough to have experienced a charley horse—a painful muscle spasm or cramp in your leg—then you may have found yourself wondering what this nonsensical phrase even means. Who is this Charley character? Where did he come from? And what does he know about my pain?

Like the words flaky and jazz, this term likely entered the language from the baseball field. While the idiom’s etymology isn’t 100 percent certain, archived newspaper articles suggest it was coined by a baseball player in the 1880s. We just don’t know which player said it first, or why.

According to a January 1887 article in the Democrat and Chronicle, the phrase was well-known to baseball players at the time—but to the average person, charley horses were as enigmatic as “an Egyptian hieroglyphic.” That year, charley horses were mentioned in a slew of newspapers across America, and some attempted to tackle the phrase’s murky origin. “Nearly every sporting journal gives a different version as to how the term charley horse originated in baseball circles,” the Oakland Daily Evening Tribune reported at the time.

The likeliest tale, according to the paper, centered around John Wesley "Jack" Glasscock, a shortstop who at the time was playing for Indianapolis. At some point a few years earlier, the player had strained a tendon in his thigh during a game and afterwards went home to his farm, where his father looked after a lame old horse called a "Charley horse." When the senior Glasscock saw his son limping along, he reportedly exclaimed, “Why, John, my boy, what is the matter; you go just like the old Charley horse?” John supposedly shared the funny turn of phrase with his teammates, and from there it spread. Similar accounts were reported in other newspapers, but they were attributed to various other players.

Other reports say the phrase has nothing to do with a live animal, but rather the fact that an injured player, while running, resembles a rocking horse or a child riding astride a wooden hobby horse.

The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary by Paul Dickson details a few other theories. In two versions of the same basic tale, Orioles or Chicago Cubs players went to the races and bet on a horse named Charlie who "pulled up lame in the final stretch." The next day, a player pulled a tendon in his leg and was said to resemble “our old Charlie horse.”

Alternatively, its origin may relate to an old workhorse that was tasked with pulling a roller across the infield. “Often in the 1800s, old workhorses kept on the grounds of ballparks were called Charley. The movements of the injured, stiff-legged ballplayers were likened to the labored plodding of these old horses, and the injury itself eventually became known as a ‘charley’ or ‘charley horse,'" Tim Considine wrote in 1982's The Language of Sport.

It also appears that charley horse originally implied a much more serious injury—or perhaps there was a bit of hysteria surrounding a condition that seemed new and scary in the late 19th century. The Democrat and Chronicle described a charley horse as a “giving way of one of the small tendons of the leg” and said an injured baseball player might need an entire season to recover. Another article from 1887 said ballplayer George Van Haltren’s relatives were worried he would get a charley horse, “although they do not know what that is.” He was said to have been “very fortunate” because he had “not yet encountered the terrible charley horse.”

For comparison, Healthline.com now says charley horses “are generally treatable at home” by stretching, massaging, or icing the afflicted area, although the muscle pain can linger for up to a day in some cases. So there you have it. We may never know the exact etymology of the charley horse, but the next time you get a sharp pain in your leg, you can thank an old-timey ballplayer for making your struggle sound so silly.

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