How Did the Standing Ovation Originate?

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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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What is a Polar Vortex?

Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

If you’ve turned on the news or stepped outside lately, you're familiar with the record-breaking cold that is blanketing a lot of North America. According to The Washington Post, a mass of bone-chilling air over Canada—a polar vortex—split into three parts at the beginning of 2019, and one is making its way to the eastern U.S. Polar vortexes can push frigid air straight from the arctic tundra into more temperate regions. But just what is this weather phenomenon?

How does a polar vortex form?

Polar vortexes are basically arctic hurricanes or cyclones. NASA defines them as “a whirling and persistent large area of low pressure, found typically over both North and South poles.” A winter phenomenon, vortexes develop as the sun sets over the pole and temperatures cool, and occur in the middle and upper troposphere and the stratosphere (roughly, between six and 31 miles above the Earth’s surface).

Where will a polar vortex hit?

In the Northern Hemisphere, the vortexes move in a counterclockwise direction. Typically, they dip down over Canada, but according to NBC News, polar vortexes can move into the contiguous U.S. due to warm weather over Greenland or Alaska—which forces denser cold air south—or other weather patterns.

Polar vortexes aren't rare—in fact, arctic winds do sometimes dip down into the eastern U.S.—but sometimes the sheer size of the area affected is much greater than normal.

How cold is a polar vortex?

So cold that frozen sharks have been known to wash up on Cape Cod beaches. So cold that animal keepers at the Calgary Zoo in Alberta, Canada once decided to bring its group of king penguins indoors for warmth (the species lives on islands north of Antarctica and the birds aren't used to extreme cold.) Even parts of Alabama and other regions in the Deep South have seen single-digit temperatures and wind chills below zero.

But thankfully, this type of arctic freeze doesn't stick around forever: Temperatures will gradually warm up.

In What Field Was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a Doctor?

Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Martin Luther King, Jr. earned a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. He’d previously earned a Bachelor of Arts from Morehouse College and a Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary. His dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” examined the two religious philosophers’ views of God in comparison to each other, and to King’s own concept of a "knowable and personal" God.

Some three decades after he earned his doctorate, in 1989, archivists working with The Martin Luther King Papers Project discovered that King’s dissertation suffered from what they called a “problematic use of sources.” King, they learned, had taken a large amount of material verbatim from other scholars and sources and used it in his work without full or proper attribution, and sometimes no attribution at all.

In 1991, a Boston University investigatory committee concluded that King had indeed plagiarized parts of his dissertation, but found that it was “impractical to reach, on the available evidence, any conclusions about Dr. King's reasons for failing to attribute some, but not all, of his sources.” That is, it could have been anything from malicious intent to simple forgetfulness—no one can determine for sure today. They did not recommend a posthumous revocation of his degree, but instead suggested that a letter be attached to the dissertation in the university library noting the passages lacked quotations and citations.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article was originally published in 2013.

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