The Grammarphobia Blog

Tent and tambourine

Q: Are you familiar with the expression “so happy she wanted to rent a tent and a tambourine”? An ESL teacher in Hungary says it’s on an English test used in the high school where she works. I can’t find anyone who’s ever heard of it.

A: We’d never heard that “tent and tambourine” expression until you brought it to our attention.

We can’t tell you where it originated or when, but such expressions refer to old-fashioned revival meetings, jubilant gatherings held under tents to the accompaniment of tambourines.

When someone says he wants to spread a piece of good news with “a tent and a tambourine,” he’s likening himself to an old-time gospel preacher.

Here are some of the examples we’ve found.

A letter to the editor in Salon in 2009 commented on the conservative pundits Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh:

“What they both are doing is comparable to the characters (Elmer Gantry and Sister Sharon) in Sinclair Lewis’ novel Elmer Gantry—minus the tent and tambourine.”

In 2003, an article in Reader’s Digest quoted a doctor eager to spread the word about her research findings: “I was about ready to rent a tent and a tambourine. … Because it’s rare that you see something that clearly in medicine.”

A biography of the evangelist and faith healer Aimee Semple McPherson described a revival meeting held under a big white tent in Philadelphia in 1918. Here’s the passage, from Daniel Mark Epstein’s Sister Aimee (1994):

“With chins and hands raised and eyes closed, the thousands abandoned themselves to the Spirit. The beat of Aimee’s tambourine as it flashed in arcs was irresistible.”

And this is from a memoir first published in 1941, Alaska Challenge, by Ruth Sutton Albee and William Albee with Lyman Anson:

“We heard that once during a streak of bad luck he had borrowed a tent and tambourine and conducted revival meetings, cleaning up handsomely thereby.”

Some, though not all, of the published references we found in various databases used the expression in a negative or condescending way.

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