ˈpædʒəntrɪ / ˈpeɪdʒəntrɪ

pageantry: 1) splendid display, gorgeous spectacular show; 2) empty or specious display, show without substance

Charles III coronation, balcony of Buckingham Palace
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Image used under Open Government Licence v3.0

What pageantry, what feats, what shows,
What minstrelsy, and pretty din,
The regent made in Mytilene
To greet the king.

William Shakespeare, Pericles, Prince of Tyre Act V, Scene II

The coronation of King Charles III got me thinking about the word pageantry this week. The two conflicting meanings given at the head of this post highlight what an odd concept it is—a conspicuous investment in both money and people’s time, designed to impress, but quite often failing to do so. Those disposed to the second usage customarily flag their resentment by the addition of the adjective mere. The Oxford English Dictionary allows two pronunciations of the first syllable, both of which I’ve listed here. When I was growing up the second pronunciation was the one I learned, with the first syllable sounding like “pay”; nowadays, “pah” seems to be the more common—and my American dictionaries allow only that form.

Pageantry is formed from pageant and the suffix -ry, a shortened form of -ery. These suffixes originally came from the French, and generally denote the things people do (baker/bakery, archer/archery, traitor/treachery) or broad classes of things (ribald/ribaldry, pageant/pageantry).

The word pageant originally denoted a scene in a play, the part a particular actor played in a scene, or the stage on which the scene was enacted. From that original little cluster of senses, we derived both of the current meanings—something spectacular (in particular, an elaborate procession of some kind); or something devoid of real meaning. The old phrase to play one’s pageant meant “to play one’s part”. But to play [someone] a pageant was to trick or deceived them. A pageanteer is someone who takes part in a pageant; a tapestry decorated with Biblical scenes is said to be pageanted; and the noun has been known to form a rare adjective, pageantic.

But apart from this little cluster of related words, pageant has no known relatives—it seems to have simply sprung into existence in Middle English, meaning “scene”, with no evident antecedents in other languages. In Anglo-Latin (Latin as spoken in Britain during the Mediæval period), there was an evidently related word, pagina, which also meant “scene”. And that’s identical to the Latin word pagina “leaf of a book” that gave us our word page. And through Old French we also acquired the literary term pagine, referring to a page of a book. So we can easily imagine how a pagine from a manuscript play came to be understood as synonymous with the scene it described, giving rise to the word pageant, but the Oxford English Dictionary is unable to find any intermediate forms to make that more than an etymological Just So story.

Others have suggested that Anglo-Latin pagina derived from Latin pangere, “to fasten” or pegma “a structure made of boards”. And there was, in the seventeenth century, an English word pegma or pegme that referred to a wooden structure used in the staging of theatrical performances. In which case Anglo-Latin pagina and English pageant might possibly have derived not as a reference to the pages of a manuscript play, but from the boards on which the play was being performed. But, again, the OED bemoans the lack of evidence for any such derivation.

And that’s it for pageantry—a word with a meaning very much open to interpretation, which, for all we can tell, more or less magicked itself into spontaneous existence in English. And in the centuries since it appeared, the English establishment seems to have become really quite good at it, whichever meaning you prefer.

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