Q From Kirk Jones: In your Weird Words section of a recent newsletter you used mummer as a synonym for guiser. Having lived near Philadelphia for a number of years I always wondered where the term mummer came from. They have a Mummer’s Parade on New Year’s Day and it’s quite a spectacular event. Any chance of a quick update on the term mummer?
A No problem. Strictly speaking, if you’re a mummer you’re keeping mum, that is, you’re staying silent. Traditional mummers acted in dumb-show or mime.
The word was used in Britain from the sixteenth century onwards for groups of local people who went from door to door on high days and holidays through the year — especially at Christmas — performing traditional plays that are often called mummer’s plays. There are many local names for the performers in Britain, such as Christmas rhymers, plough bullocks, plough jags, and tipteerers, as well as guisers. The plays featured characters such as St George and the Dragon, Robin Hood, the Turkish Knight (an echo of the Crusades) and Beelzebub. A key character is a comical quack doctor who at the end of the play brings back to life the loser of a sword fight between a hero and his opponent. Despite the name, most mummer’s plays are actually spoken, usually in rhyme, and can also include singing. For that reason, the more formal term is folk plays. The tradition still exists in a few places in Britain and other countries.
The word mum comes from an old Germanic root and seems to be echoic. If you make inarticulate noises with your mouth closed, it comes out sounding like “mmmmm”. Some scholars argue that the word for the performers comes instead from a French source meaning a mask, since the characters in such plays often wore fantastic costumes that included masks. This seems not to be the case.
In the nineteenth century mummer became a contemptuous term for a ham actor, because the objective of the traditional local mummer’s play was humour, not the quality of the performance, and the standard was often atrocious. Hence also the theatrical term Mummerset for a crudely-rendered, non-specific, all-purpose yokel accent, as a pun on the name of the English county, Somerset.