Q: While I was in Texas for the recent MLA convention, the subject of beauty pageants came up at a dinner conversation. When did this secular use of “pageant” develop from the term’s medieval religious origins?
A: The word “pageant” didn’t become associated with beauty contests until the 20th century.
In the Middle Ages, a “pageant” was a mystery play (or an act or a scene in one). Mystery plays were dramas depicting biblical events, and they were especially popular in Europe from about the 12th through 16th centuries.
In fact, modern Christmas and Easter pageants are echoes of that medieval usage, since they include tableaus and scenes representing biblical stories.
The ultimate source of the English word is a bit blurry. It has “multiple origins,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, since it’s “partly a borrowing from French” and “partly a borrowing from Latin.”
The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology gives “pagyn” as the earliest English example, recorded in 1386-87 “in an Anglo-French context.” The OED’s earliest example, spelled “pagent,” is from a 1403 document—and it’s notable that the quotation is mostly in French.
The word’s cousins in French (pagin, pagant), Anglo-Norman (pagin, pagine, pagyn), and post-classical Latin (pagina, pagens, pagenda) had various meanings: a stage, a play in a cycle of mystery plays, or a tableau.
Unfortunately, the source of the late Latin pagina is unclear. As the OED says, it may or may not be the same word as the earlier, classical Latin pāgina (page):
“Perhaps, if the sense ‘scene displayed on a stage’ were the original sense, it might be developed from ‘page’ or ‘leaf’ of a manuscript play, but if so there is no evidence to support this.”
Another explanation is that the post-classical pagina could have come from the classical Latin pangere (to fix), giving rise to the meaning “framework,” the OED suggests. By comparison, Oxford cites the classical Latin pēgma (a framework, movable stage, or scaffold in a theater).
However it developed, “pageant” in English originally meant a mystery play or part of one, whether we date it from the late 1300s or the early 1400s.
Some mystery plays, especially Easter pageants, have been criticized for their depiction of Jews. In “Anti-Semitism and the English Mystery Plays,” a 1979 paper in the journal Comparative Drama, Stephen Spender describes the plays as “vehemently anti-Jewish.”
By 1450, the OED says, “pageant” was recorded in a newer sense: a stage on wheels.
Here’s Oxford’s definition: “A stage or platform on which scenes were acted or tableaux represented.” Particularly in earlier usages, it meant “a movable structure consisting of stage and stage machinery, used in the open-air performance of a mystery play.”
That 15th-century usage is now seen only in historical writings. This 20th-century example is a good illustration:
“In the Middle Ages a pageant was the rough stage mounted on a cart on which the Mysteries and Miracles were played. To-day we have similar exhibitions in the tableaux arranged for the Lord Mayor’s Show, and it is easy to see how the word transferred from the moving stage to the whole procession.” (From Volume 5 of Harold Wheeler’s Waverley Children’s Dictionary, 1927-29.)
At around the same time, circa 1450, “pageant” was used to mean a tableau or “dumb show,” either fixed in place or erected on a movable float. This sense of “pageant” is rare today, the OED says.
The use of “pageant” widened around the beginning of the 19th century to mean “a brilliant or stately spectacle arranged for effect; esp. a procession or parade with elaborate spectacular display; a showy parade,” the OED says.
Oxford’s earliest example is from Robert Southey’s epic poem Madoc (1805): “Embroidered surcoats, and emblazoned shields, / And lances whose long streamers played aloft, / Made a rare pageant, as with sound of trump, / Tambour and cittern, proudly they went on.” (We’ve expanded the citation to get in more of the pomp.)
This less celebratory example is from The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1820), by Washington Irving: “Few pageants can be more stately and frigid than an English funeral in town.”
Later in the 19th century, “pageant” was first used in connection with historical dramas. The OED’s definition: “A commemorative play depicting scenes from history (esp. local history), usually performed outdoors in the form of a procession in elaborate, colourful costumes.”
The OED’s earliest citation is from 1883, but we like this 1970 example: “A great many pageants have been so gruesome—Merrie Englande with rain—the form has earned itself a bad reputation.” (From New Directions: Ways of Advance for the Amateur Theatre, by Peter Burton and John Lane.)
Finally, the use of “pageant” for a beauty contest originated in the US in the early 20th century and is still chiefly American, according to the OED.
The dictionary’s first citation is a pithy headline from a 1911 issue of the Syracuse (NY) Herald: “Pick blondes for beauty pageant.”
Here’s another example, from a 1929 issue of the Zanesville (Ohio) Signal: “The district winner chosen at Buckeye Lake next Thursday … is to be entered directly in the ‘Miss America’ pageant at Baltimore, Md. in September.”
In the US these days, “pageant” has almost replaced “beauty contest,” which was first recorded in 1880. As this example shows, “pageant” has become a byword in the beauty-contest biz.
“The former Little Miss Colorado’s wardrobe for 1997 was to have included half a dozen outfits for the different categories of ‘pageants’—the term that organisers prefer to ‘beauty contests’—in which she would compete.” (From the Independent, London, 1997.)
A historical aside: Most early spellings of “pageant” (“pagyn,” “padgean,” “padgin,” “padgion,” and others) didn’t end in “t.” The “t” became established later, either for reasons of euphony or by analogy with “ancient,” which was spelled “auncien” or “auncian” in Middle English, ancien in French, and antiān in late Latin.
We’ll close with a look at “pageantry,” which Shakespeare is credited with using first in writing. Here’s the OED’s earliest citation, from Pericles, Prince of Tyre (1609):
“What pageantry, what feats, what showes, / What minstrelsie, and prettie din, / The Regent made … / To greet the King.” (We like the phrase “prettie din,” don’t you?)
Originally, “pageantry” meant what Shakespeare intended: “pageants or tableaux collectively,” or “the public performance or display of these,” says the OED.
But later in the mid-1600s, Oxford says, “pageantry” acquired the meanings it has today, both negative and positive: (1) empty display or “show without substance,” and (2) “gorgeous, colourful, or spectacular show; pomp.”