peanut gallery

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English[edit]

Etymology[edit]

The phrase comes from nineteenth-century vaudeville theatres and refers to the cheap seats at the back of the theatre or in the upper balcony. It came to be applied to other venues as well, referring to the section where less-educated or less-seriously-interested patrons sat. The "peanut" comes from the popularity of that cheap snack in those sections, and the possibility that patrons might throw peanuts at the stage if displeased.

In the mid-twentieth century, the "Howdy Doody Show" associated "peanut gallery" specifically with children.

The sense of “an upper balcony for black patrons” may derive from an early association between peanuts and the African slaves who first introduced them to America;[1] the extended sense of “a source of heckling” most probably derives from the disesteem in which those balconies and their occupants were generally held.


Noun[edit]

peanut gallery (plural peanut galleries)

  1. (historical) In the nineteenth century, the cheap seats at the back of a theatre or in the upper balcony.[2]
  1. (historical) The upper balcony in racially segregated venues such as a theatre to which black patrons were restricted.[3]
    • 2001: John E. Kleber, The Encyclopedia of Louisville, page 630 (University Press of Kentucky; ISBN 9780813121000)
      As early as the 1870s, most theaters allowed African Americans to sit in designated areas, while the dress and parquet circles were reserved for whites. A few theaters did not allow blacks at all. In the early 1920s, black leaders protested these “peanut galleries” on the grounds that African Americans paid the same ticket price. A boycott was organized that resulted not only in the closing of the peanut galleries but also closing of the theaters to blacks altogether. It was not until the public accommodations drive in the early 1960s that all theaters were opened to blacks. On May 14, 1963, the Louisville Board of Aldermen passed the public accommodations law that made discrimination in all public facilities illegal.
  2. (idiomatic) Any source of heckling, unwelcome commentary or criticism, especially from a know-it-all or of an inexpert nature. May also now refer to general audience response: "Let's hear it from the peanut gallery."
    Enough already from the peanut gallery; if you think you can do a better job, go right ahead.

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References[edit]

  1. ^ The All-American Cookie Book by Nancy Baggett (2001; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; ISBN 0395915376, 9780395915370), page 235
      Peanuts have never gotten much respect in America. Their reputation is better than it once was, but if something is “worth peanuts,” we know it’s trifling. Perhaps the root of the problem — so to speak — was that peanuts were first introduced to America by African slaves. During the Civil War, when food supplies were scarce, both Union and Confederate troops started eating these legumes out of necessity, and goobers gradually caught on. By 1870, P. T. Barnum’s vendors were hawking peanuts at his circus. Soon, they were also sold in theaters, where the cheap seats became known as “peanut galleries.”
  2. ^ This sense of the peanut gallery as an undesirable but available place to enjoy a performance is illustrated in Robert Ames Bennett's Western novel, "Into the Primitive" (NY: A.L. Burt, Co. 1908), p.280: "But give me a chance to hear good music, and I’m there, if I have to stand in the peanut gallery."
  3. ^ Listening to America: An Illustrated History of Words and Phrases from Our Lively and Splendid Past by Stuart Berg Flexner (1982; Simon and Schuster; ISBN 0671248952, 9780671248956), page 438
      Peanut gallery was in use in the 1880s, as a synonym for nigger gallery (1840s) or nigger heaven (1870s), the upper balcony where blacks sat, as in segregated theaters.