usher

In my note on terpsichorean I mentioned that I met my wife ushering at a dance festival. Laurie Miller commented in response that I should taste usher.

Uh… sure! Why not? Usher is something I have been and done many times in my life. It comes with being a theatre person and, in my younger years, sufficiently impecunious that I couldn’t afford tickets to all the performances I wanted to attend. Ushers, you see, at least in Canadian and American society, are very often volunteers whose only recompense is getting to see the performance they are ushering, and occasionally getting tickets to other performances. And of course in university drama departments ushering is done by students under obligation. It’s part of that set of theatre functions known as front of house.

So I got very good at pointing things out using a flashlight, and at encouraging people to comport themselves appropriately (including occasional hushing, assuring, and keeping people from rushing), and at navigating vestibules and stairs in the dark. That last skill was essential, because you would not want to treat the audience to an impromptu performance of The Fall of the House Usher.

Usher is indeed a family name as well, probably based on the occupation of its first holders back in medieval times. Noted bearers of the name, also sometimes spelled Ussher, include the Irish bishop who determined through some Biblical number-crunching and interpolation that God created the world at the nightfall before October 23, 4004 BC. There was also Hezekiah Usher, of Boston, the first bookseller in British North America. And there’s a popular singer of our times who goes by the one-word name Usher (it’s actually his first name; his family name is Raymond).

But never mind bishops and booksellers and singers and horror-novel title characters. What everyone seems to want to know is, do ushers ush?

That seems sensible, doesn’t it? Editors edit, after all, and porters port and doctors doct and barbers barb and… hmm, wait, no. It doesn’t always work. Ushers usher. But it’s a very common jocularism among ushers to speak of ushing. In theory, an usher could threaten a noisy patron with “If you don’t hush up you’ll be ushed out.” Which looks like pushed out with the p left behind. But we know that people are not ushed out, they are ushered out. Out what? The door, of course; ushers are first and foremost doorkeepers.

That’s where the word comes from, in fact: Latin ostiarius, from ostium ‘door’. “Aw, sure,” you say insincerely, “that’s obvious.” Well, here’s how it got from there to here: the Latin was worn down to Old French huisier (modern French is huissier); that had variant spellings such as ussier; it came into English and became usser or uscher or ussher or usher. And for what they did they simply used the same word as who they were. Well, if you can doctor, why not be able to usher? Backform it to ush and you have a word that’s a little too close to hush – and it sounds like “a shh,” which of course ushers have been known to utter… in between the ushering in and the ushering out.

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