Stickybeak’s Lexicon: Terpsichorean

There hasn’t been an entry into the Lexicon for a while, but today I’m making up for it with a rather splendid word. I like it so much, in fact, that it deserves a line all of its own.


This word gives me a double thrill because not only does it sound great but I also came across it in a particularly interesting location.

Today I visited Smallhythe Place in Kent.


Ellen Terry’s home at Smallhythe.

It is the former home of actress Ellen Terry (1847-1928), and was donated to the National Trust by her daughter Edith Craig in 1939. Terry became the leading Shakespearean actress in Britain and Smallhythe Place is crammed full of theatrical memorabilia, including costumes, playbills and even a letter to Terry from Oscar Wilde.

I was drawn to one of these playbills which is displayed on the upstairs landing. It is from 1848 and is an advertisement for a production of Macbeth at The Glasgow Playhouse, featuring Ellen Terry’s parents and sister.

Victorian Playbill from The Glasgow Playhouse, 1848

Victorian Playbill from The Glasgow Playhouse, 1848, now displayed at Ellen Terry’s house.


  Ellen Terry herself has inscribed the playbill: “I was born 27th February of this year, 1848, E.T.”. (This isn’t actually true because she was born a year earlier.) However, the thing that interested me in the playbill was the blurb (what’s the Victorian for ‘blurb’?) for the preceding entertainment, the language of which gave me such a thrill as it is so redolent of an era lost to time. I found this picture of the poster on the National Trust’s archive site, but the print is rather difficult to read. It begins:

The Public is respectfully informed that this long-established and popular place of amusement will open for the season on Saturday, Nov 4, 1848″

before going on to introduce “these celebrated Terpsichorean and pantomimic artistes, the Deulin Family”.

I have no idea what type of entertainment the Deulin family provided but having looked up ‘terpsichordean’ I am in a position to confirm that it must have involved an element of dance and of singing.

Terpsichore was a Greek muse, ruling over choral song and dance.

Terpsichore, Muse of Music and Dance, by Jean-Marc Nattier (1739)

Terpsichore, Muse of Music and Dance, by Jean-Marc Nattier (1739) Oil on canvas

She is usually depicted holding a lyre (presumably to accompany and provide inspiration to the star of the show). The word comes from the Greek terpsis (delight) and choros (dance), and from it we have the adjective terpsichorean.

I’ve certainly never come across this word before but I love the way this Victorian copy writer delved deep into their vocabulary to jazz up a street poster for a Glasgow theatre. ‘Pantomimic’ deserves a round of applause itself while I’m on the subject.  Today’s theatre posters, full of celebrity “five-star” and “two thumbs up” endorsements, seem miserably weak and unromantic by comparison.

Ellen Terry’s house at Smallhythe is worth a visit if you’re in the area. It’s a place where the little things are so interesting: a signed photograph of Siegfried Sassoon gifted by the poet himself to Ellen Terry; birthday telegrams from Queen Alexandra sent from Sandringham; an almost indecipherable, but original letter written by Oscar Wilde; a wonderful line of vocabulary from a theatre bill. All that and a new word to relish. What more could I want from a rainy day in June?


One comment on “Stickybeak’s Lexicon: Terpsichorean

  1. John Wiswell says:

    I wish I could get ads for my work in the fashion of those old playbills. It might be worth looking into, just for the stylings and potential humor.

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