How I've managed to blog through nearly five Christmas seasons without doing this one, I don't know. But here I am, finally tackling (BrE) panto, as suggested by Strawberry Yoghurt (in 2008!) and @MarianDougan via Twitter last week. 

So, you know, there's this thing called pantomime, right? Marcel Marceau did it. Man trapped in an invisible box and all that. Yes, that meaning of pantomime is found across dialects of English, though it's not what usually comes to mind in the UK. 

But it's probably not what a British person means if they say pantomime this time of year.  Instead, they are referring to (and I'm quoting the Oxford English Dictionary here):

Chiefly Brit. Originally: a traditional theatrical performance, developing out of commedia dell'arte, and comprising a dumbshow, which later developed into a comic dramatization with stock characters of Clown, Pantaloon, Harlequin, and Columbine; = harlequinade n. a (now chiefly hist.). Now usually: a theatrical entertainment, mainly for children, which involves music, topical jokes, and slapstick comedy, and is based on a fairy tale or nursery story, usually staged around Christmas; this style of performance as a genre. (Now the usual sense.)

The now-traditional English pantomime developed in the 19th cent. and was originally limited to a short opening scene to the earlier harlequinade in which Harlequin was handed his wand. Its popularity led to its extension into a full dramatized story with the harlequinade first relegated to a short scene at the end and then disappearing altogether. This process was accompanied by the development of a new set of conventional characters, typically including a man in the chief comic female role (see pantomime dame n. at Compounds 2), a woman in the main male role (see principal boy n. at principal adj., n., and adv. Special uses, and an animal played by actors in comic costume (see pantomime horse n. at Compounds 2).Recorded earliest in pantomime entertainment at Compounds 1.

This use of pantomime derives from the original sense of the word (again the OED):

Originally: (Classical Hist.) a theatrical performer popular in the Roman Empire who represented mythological stories through gestures and actions; = pantomimus n. Hence, more generally: an actor, esp. in comedy or burlesque, who expresses meaning by gesture or mime; a player in a dumbshow.

The 'man trapped in invisible box' and the 'fairytale play with cross-dressing' senses of the word are distinguished in BrE by the way they are clipped.  The former, as in AmE, is also called mime, while the latter is a pantoPantos are a Christmas tradition. Across the UK, most siz(e)able towns' theat{re/er}s at this time of year are taken up with traditional pantos, such as Cinderella, Aladdin, and Dick Whittington and His Cat.  The panto stories have their own characters above and beyond the traditional tales, for example Buttons in Cinderella and the Widow Twankey in Aladdin. These days, pantos are generally meant for children, but there is a parallel, newer tradition of 'adult panto' full of proper drag queens--this year  Brighton (the 'gay capital of Britain') has Dick Whittington and his Pussy.

Here are a couple of televised examples for the uninitiated.  I've only used television ones because the recording quality is miles ahead of the phone-videos from proper stage shows.
This one is from CBeebies, the television channel for preschoolers, and has a little explanation about pantos at the start.  I think it's a pretty decent example of the genre.
This one is from Paul O'Grady's (orig AmE) talk show/(BrE) chat show, and is a bit more in the 'adult' vein (as much as one can be on daytime television--before the watershed). O'Grady is the performer formerly known as Lily Savage.  It's peopled with a cast of household names in the UK who will be completely unknown in the US (including my university's chancellor) and it's studded with cultural references that will pass unnoticed by a non-UK audience.
The OED entry above gives some of the vocabulary that one needs regarding the traditional roles in a pantomime (particularly the cross-dressing roles of the dame and the principal boy). There is also an unwritten law that any conversation about pantomimes must go something like this, in imitation of some of the traditional audience-participation parts of the panto:

A:  I'm going to a panto.
B: Oh no, you're not!

A: Oh yes, I am!

B: It's behind you!!

Now, it is to my shame that I have never attended a traditional panto, even though there's more than one available to be seen in my area each Christmas time.  (The fact that I spend alternate Christmasses in the US bears some of the blame for this sad situation.)  I have, however, been in two original pantos, staged by my always-up-for-fun colleagues in my former school, COGS (Cognitive and Computing Science).  This was before university reorgani{z/s}ation put Linguistics into the School of English, where their idea of holiday fun is a staff performance of The Waste Land (I kid you not. This was our Christmas party this year. You know, "April is the cruellest month". Just the thing to send you to the bottom of a bottle for the holidays.)  Back in COGS, we did two pantos before we were cruelly torn asunder, with the Blinder as the main creative force, but, being geeks, we had our own ideas about what constituted a "traditional tale".  The first was based on the film A.I. (itself based on the Brian Aldiss story "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long").  In that one, I played the love interest, ELIZA, an early chatbot. In the second, Harry Potter and the COGS Phoenix*, I played Gnome Chomsky. I could have had proper career development as a linguistic parodist, had I not been sent to the humanities. I'm only slightly bitter. grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

Returning to that other clipping, mime, its use differs somewhat in BrE and AmE as well.  I've been very aware of this lately, as Grover (soon-to-be three years old) is (thanks to her dad) completely obsessed with Singin' in the Rain. For those who don't know the story (which is to say, SPOILER ALERT), it takes place just as the first talking pictures are being introduced, and the (AmE-preferred) movie/(BrE-preferred) film studios are faced with the problem that some of their stars have horrible voices. So, in order to save an already-filmed picture, its soundtrack is recast with Debbie Reynolds' character singing and speaking Jean Hagen's character's parts. At the end of the première, the audience calls for a sung encore, so Reynolds stands behind a curtain and sings 'Singin' in the Rain' while Hagen ______.

How do you fill in that blank?  Better Half (and now Grover) always says mimes, while I would say lip-syncs.  And I see that the OED has the definition:

c. trans. To pretend to sing or play an instrument as a recording is being played; esp. to mouth the words of (a song) in time with an accompanying soundtrack. Also intr., with to, along with, etc.

...while none of the US dictionaries I've consulted have that specific sense.  BrE has lip-sync--in fact my sister-in-law belongs to a choir whose name plays on this term, but in everyday use, the verb mime seems to be preferred. The British National Corpus has 11 definite cases of mime='to mouth words' in its first fifty hits for the verb, and two cases of lip-sync* (*=any characters after), whereas the Corpus of Contemporary American English (which, we must note is 4.1 times bigger) has 179 lip-sync*s and only two mime='mouth words' in the first fifty hits.

Before I go... It's your last chance to nominate words for BrE-to-AmE import of the year or AmE-to-BrE import of the year on the SbaCL Words of the Year page.  I'll be announcing my picks in the next day or two.

* Inside joke: COGS Phoenix was the serious attempt by stalwarts of the school to keep the mission of the school going once it had been wiped out.


  1. Although it doesn't come up very often, I think I would use both 'mime' and 'lip sync', but would differentiate them. 'Mime' would be a more spontaneous, impressionistic performance, whereas 'lip sync' would imply hours and hours of practising to get the lip movements and everything else exactly right. 'Lip sync' is generally meant to look convincing as if the lip syncher is actually performing the song and can be judged accordingly, while miming just needs to be recognisable as a particular singer. (Br Eng speaker from SE England, early 50s).

  2. I remember the COGS panto well - though I remembered my lines less well at the time, despite much effort. I suspect my lapse got me a bigger laugh from our sympathetic audience than accurate delivery would have!

    I would, however, like to take issue with your "probably" in "But [mime]'s probably not what a British person means if they say pantomime this time of year", and your proposal that the "mime" sense is understood in all dialects.

    I'm pretty sure that panto is what would certainly be understood by a British person at any time of year; likewise, I've never heard pantomime used to mean a mime performance in this country, and would be very surprised to do so.

  3. 'As good as a pantomime' is a phrase used by my mother (UK) to describe someone acting flamboyantly or stupidly, or in a larger-than-life display of temper in public.
    Then there is 'it's a pantomime' to describe an ultimately pointless display of managerial might - like asking university staff to demonstrate their involvement in teaching when everyone knows that job security resides in research grants. Ahem. There's a splendid example of a police raid staged for the benefit of press photographers in John Masters' 'Bowhani Junction' which also fits this description. And David Lodge takes his characters - participants at a Linguistics conference - to a panto, which he then deconstrudts in a very po-faced way. Forgotten the name of the novel for the moment.
    We also have 'dumb-show' to describe how you might mime how to use a piece of equipment, or to make spiteful comments on someone's ability to drive a car.....

  4. I would concur with David on the "Pantomime == Mime" interpretation for British English. I was actually caught out by not knowing this very distinction a few years ago while in California.

    To me, while I could recall if prompted that "mime" is short for "pantomime", it would sound as unnatural to me as would boarding the Omnibus outside the Manufactory.

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  6. I haven't read every thread on this blog, but I would be surprised if you've covered a pair so totally alien to each other on one side of the Atlantic as mime and pantomime.

    To my British ears, even Marcel Marceau's dumbshow is a seriously atypical example of mime. To mime is to do something silently that you normally do with words. In fact, you don't usually just mime — you mime something.

    Ballet dancers mime conversations. Musicians mime songs on television. (They mime the words, that is. I personally wouln't use mime to describe pretending to play instruments, but perhaps other British speakers would.) If we play charades, we mime words, clues and syllables.

    The noun mime is the act of miming — and, marginally, the art of people like Marceau. More marginal still, a mime may mean a mime artist.

    The noun lip sync is reasonably common here, if rather technical. But I've never heard used as a verb.

    I actually think andyholder underestimates the irreconcilability. Omnibus and bus feel very much the same word. Manufactory feels weird and archaic, but a plausible substitute for factory. But how could a pantomime ever be silent?

    I'm in my late sixties, so my instincts may not be typical of younger British speakers. I suspect that the Marcel Marceau stuff is less marginal nowadays. And perhaps some younger speakers speak of musicians mining their instruments.

    In most cases, one can see the possibility of word meanings crossing the Atlantic in some hypothetical future. Not here. In Britain, whatever the range of meanings attached to mime the essential feature is silence.

    And British pantomime is not going to go away, because adults love sharing it with children. That's why the genre is always suited to its time: it incorporates the popular ephemera that children love along with the traditional formulae that adults recognise from their youth. And neither group has any time for a silent entertainment.

  7. Thanks for the comments--this is what happens when I post after Better Half has gone to bed and therefore can't check my work. I'll stand by it being a possible interpretation in BrE--there is dictionary evidence for that--but have made a couple of changes in the post (a strike-through and a bit in green) to reflect your valid criticisms. Thanks!

  8. I would say that Marcel Marceau is a mime artist. I would also say that a singer pretending to sing along to a soundtrack is miming, but a musician pretending to play an instrument to a soundtrack is vamping.

    I remember once being at a concert and the support singer (don't remember his name) was recording his slot for a live album. He sang a song called pantomime and asked the audience if they could, after he had announced "This is a song called pantomime", respond with "Oh no it isn't!".

  9. I automatically filled in the blank with "mime". I've lived in the US all my life except for studying in Germany and Iceland. But I think I was already grown up when "lip-sync" came into use.
    "Vamp" for me means actually playing your instrument. For example, the score of a musical comedy will often specify "vamp until ready" in the introduction to a song.

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  11. I haven't been to a pantomime for some years; I adored them as a child (I'll never forget the one where Jimmy Edwards did a most enormous belch on stage - on purpose - and my grandmother taught my brother and me to do them, too, much to my mother's disgust!), but the last one I went to rather put me off: it was Peter Pan at the Catford theatre and one of the featured stars was too ill to go on, the rest of the cast had filthy colds and you couldn't hear what they said and, worst of all, they had made the plot "politically-correct" so that Captain Hook reformed instead of being eaten by the crocodile....

    (I'd made an appalling grammar mistake in the previous post, which is why I deleted it! Now corrected!).

  12. 'These days, pantos are generally meant for children', - and have been ever since I was a child (I'm also in my sixties). But children with adults; because what I don't think is really clear here, is that the humour works on two levels - slapstick, audience participation etc., for the kids, and really quite risqué humour with lots of double-entendres, as well as topical references (politics, TV etc) for the adults.

    The role of the pantomime dame also gives comedians a great opportunity to tap into the rich tradition of camp humour, a time-honoured component of British comedy.

    For me the two videos here aren't really typical panto, one being exclusively for children and the other for adults and featuring mainly 'alternative' comedians. It's quite fun, but not in my opinion the real thing. The magic of traditional panto is that it entertains both groups, children and adults, equally and together.

    Wikipedia has an excellent article on British pantomime.

    Incidentally I've just checked camp in Wikipedia, and I think this could be a possible subject for your attention, because as far as I can see, we mean something rather different in the UK than what is understood in the US. Classic British camp humour would include Kenneth Williams and the Carry On films. It's more (homo)sexual than bad taste.

  13. BrE, SE England: for me, the distinction between the two senses of 'pantomime' seems to be very much a verb-versus-noun thing. I'm happy to read about people 'pantomiming' things (silently acting them out?), but i would definitely describe their actions as a mime, not a pantomime, and i'm not sure whether i've ever heard someone use that sense of the word in speech.

  14. To me, vamping is either (1) playing (or perhaps singing) for as long as required to fill the time (I actually used the word spontaneously yesterday for what the keyboard player had to do while the children doing the sword dance in the church Christmas pageant fumbled at getting their sticks positioned correctly to form a star) or (2) using feminine wiles in a certain way.

  15. To me, an AmE speaker raised in the Northeastern U.S., "to mime" means to mimic silently,"a mime" is a practioner of the french art, i.e man in a box, running against the wind, ect., with pantomime being what a mime actually does. As for the BrE panto, I think as children my experience with something similar would be all the Punch and Judy puppet (and live action)shows we would be taken to on class trips. They did indeed include audience participation, i.e. call and response.

  16. Dilsnik

    A Punch and Judy show is performed by one man and it costs him a pittance. He buys his tent, his puppets and his swazzle once, and that sets him up for life. A pantomime has a large cast and lavish costumes and scenery. (That is to say as large and as lavish as the budget will allow.) And they change every year.

    Only today a British politician has been trying to justify a railway scheme as 'transformational'. The answer from a well-known actor whose backyard will be disturbed is that we don't want 'pantomime benefits'.

    The obscure-seeming response is based on the convention that a pantomime is expected to have a transformation scene in which the set magically changes from one place to another.

    No wonder the British public never took to transformational grammar.

    And the scripts of Punch and Judy shows aren't written to entertain accompanying adults. Pantomime scripts most certainly are.

  17. If you want to see the closest thing to a trad panto that I've seen (and am going to see again, for the 12th time this year) can I suggest York's Theatre Royal if it's anywhere near you?

    Although the actors all work elsewhere, the dame, the principal boy, villian plus various other characters that are traditional in York at least (principal girl and Dame's sidekick) keep coming back. I think it's the 28th for the Dame this year. And, they're not particularly well known TV personalities in the way you see in too many other pantos these days.

    Add in, as one of your other posters suggests, running gags from year to year, gags and slapstick for the kids, topical gags, and way OTT costumes and it's a riot.

  18. For me, "lip-syncing" isn't generally something that artists do (though I wouldn't object to the usage). It's something that editors/producers do to footage of artists. As in <a href=">looping</a>. I would call artists what artists do live "miming".

  19. I must echo Eliose's comments about the Panto at York. It is the one of the best around - works for both adults and children and has all the traditional elements in spades. Good Panto is just as much fun for adults as children anything less isn't Panto!

  20. to David: The Punch and Judy shows of my youth were much more elaborate affairs, with the traditional puppets in their box stage, and then live action plays starring all the characters traditional to the shows, plus many more, come to life, walking and talking on stage, in the audience, and interacting with us. This is the closest to panto I think you'll find in North America, recognizing it is in fact very different from panto.

  21. Not sure if this is relevant, but it may be of interest: the traditional cross-dressing Principal Boy is pretty much dead in commercial panto. The juvenile male lead character is these days almost invariably played by a male actor.

  22. I think the female principal boy was for the dads in the audience — in the days when there weren't many respectable places to admire a girl's legs.

  23. Descriptions of British pantos so far have concentrated on the lavish theatre productions. Can I just add that an important part of the tradition is the village panto: up and down the country at present dozens - perhaps even hundreds - of little am dram groups are rehearsing their pantos in village halls. These village pantos give the added delights of distinguished local gentlemen in frocks and respectable local ladies dressed as Robin Hood or Aladdin. The scripts will contain local (sometimes quite pointed) jokes.

  24. I think our COGS pantos definitely count as local! :)

  25. I saw a panto once. I didn't know it was a panto then, but years later I read about panto on the Internet and what I saw then meets the description well enough.

    I got picked out of the audience to come on stage and draw a hopscotch grid for a character. Got a jelly baby, I think it was, for my trouble.

    This is a very, very, faint memory.

  26. Lynne, you're right, of course, and I realise I must have unconsciously pigeonholed your COGS shows as what many years ago were called "office theatricals", an altogether rarer and more dangerous form of the dramatic art.

  27. I played in two local pantomimes — in Cairo and in Sana’a (Yemen).

    The former was essentially the work of British expats, but the latter started as an American project. They were well prepared with mail-order play-scripts from Samuel French, but then they were amazed when we Brits inserted all the missing Behind you!'s and Oh no it isn’t!'s. Before the end of the first rehearsal it had become a British project.

    Yes, local pantomimes are fun, but they’re based on memories of big-theatre pantomimes. The influence is all one way; there are no ‘grass roots’ creating innovations in the genre.

  28. In the US anyway, when a pop singer goes on TV and pretends to sing along with the actual recording instead of singing live it's called lip-syncing.

  29. ITV produced a series of four traditional pantomimes that still make the rounds of Christmas TV:
    Jack and the Beanstalk (1998)
    Cinderella (1999)
    Aladdin (2000)
    Dick Whittington (2001)

    They're all available on YouTube, where a search for "ITV panto" is a good place to start.

  30. All the talk of 'lip-synch' reminds me that there was an American group in the 80's called Lipps Inc who had a massive hit with Funkytown.

  31. The earliest OED cite for "lip-sync" is 1961, as a verb, defined as "Lip sync, to move the lips in synchronization with a recorded sound; to pantomime with a recording." I suppose "pantomime" or "mime" is what Americans used to say.

  32. I applaud the person that came up with "Gnome Chomsky". Gave me a fit of giggles.

  33. As an American, this whole idea of pantos is pretty new to me, but now that Lynne's described it, I seem to recall it from The Pink Panther. I believe one of the characters stole an important diamond during a Christmas panto, complete with Harlequin and so on.

    When I Googled "Pink Panther panto," to check my memory, I got a lot of hits calling it a "pantomime cartoon series" or a "pantomime comedy." The characters "worked in pantomime," and it was all done in "pantomime style." Is this what the British would say as well?

  34. No, I don't think so, Grace. The synopsis on the Internet Movie Database says that the theft took place during a costume party. A British-style pantomime is a stage show.
    Some of your quotes may refer to the Pink Panther cartoon series, which derived from the credits of the live comedy film, and is "pantomime" in the sense of wordless comic action.

    Kate (Derby, UK)


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AmE = American English
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