Do you remember the Grand Panjandrum?

In my word-of-the week I love exploring the way a word has been created or adopted into English. I do try to avoid obscure words if they are  specialised or only being used by people who are showing off. However, if the story behind a word is whimsical enough I will make an exception. So it is with this week’s word of the week—panjandrum—meaning a self-important person. Its origin is from a theatrical duel between two 18th century actors, Charles Macklin and Samuel Foote (pictured Foote on the left and Macklin on the right).

Charles Macklin (1699-1797) was an influential actor of the 18th century who helped develop the modern form of naturalistic acting. Acting at the time followed a “declamatory style”—actors spoke directly to the audience in an oratory rather than to the other characters onstage.

Macklin became a sensation when he reinterpreted Shylock, the Jewish lead in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, using a naturalistic style. During the 18th century Shylock had been performed as a comic character, dressed almost like a clown. Macklin researched Shylock’s character by spending time with London Jews, learning their speech and observing the way they dressed. He paid particular attention to those from Venice. Venice had one of the largest populations of Jews in Europe that lived in a designated area that gave its name to the modern ghetto.

However, Macklin’s popularity waxed and waned. Macklin was involved in a fracas with another actor stabbing him in the eye with his cane. It pierced his opponent’s brain causing his death. Macklin was tried for murder although only found guilty of manslaughter. When Macklin died many years later his wife erected a memorial in St Pauls, Covent Garden, showing a dagger piercing a theatrical mask, suggesting Macklin’s life-long contrition.

Macklin retired from the stage in 1753 and opened a tavern where he gave lectures and led debates, which he called The British Inquisition. At one of these lectures Macklin claimed to have such a good memory that he could recite any speech after reading through it only once.

Samuel Foote (1720 –1777) was an acting student of Macmillan’s. Foote went on to also become a dramatist and theatre manager. He gained fame for his satirical acting and writing. Ironically for a man named Foote, he lost a leg in 1766 in a riding accident, of course, leaving him with only one foot.

In 1754, Foote rented the Haymarket Theatre and began to stage mock lectures that satirised Macklin’s British Inquisition. Macklin attended the parodies and at one of these Foote improvised a piece of nonsense prose to test Macklin’s claim to be able to recite any speech.

So she went into the garden to cut a cabbage-leaf to make an apple-pie; and at the same time a great she-bear, coming up the street, pops its head into the shop. “What! No soap?” So he died, and she very imprudently married the barber; and there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies, and the grand Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at top, and they all fell to playing the game of catch-as-catch-can till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots.

It is unknown if Macklin succeeded in remembering the passage. However the dictionary makers have remembered panjandrum having used it to mean a self-important person.