Word of the Day: Marquee

Dec 22, 2016 05.00PM |

by Tan Chu Chze

MOST of us know what a ‘marquee’ is. It’s a tent. A big, big tent. The kind of canopy that Cirque du Soleil might run a show under.

However, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke last week about a “marquee project” in which no tents are being erected. Instead, a High-Speed Rail will run from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur. PM Lee and his Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak signed the agreement to this project on Dec 13 this year, so the plan is definitely not on tentative terms.

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So what is the deal with calling a train project a ‘marquee’ if there is no canvas stretched across the two countries? Or is ‘marquee project’ just monkey malarkey?

Such confusion is not unfamiliar to the history of the word ‘marquee’ though. In fact, ‘marquee’ was formed by mistake:

The origin of ‘marquee’ is traced back to ‘marquis’ – the French term referring to a rank in nobility. So ‘marquis’ in Marquis de Sade is actually his title, not his name.

When the marquis set up camp next to their subordinates, they placed a special canopy over their tents to distinguish themselves. These canopies became known as ‘marquise’ – the feminine form of ‘marquis’.

Here is where the English language makes the boo boo; It mistook ‘marquise’ (pronounced mar-keys) to be plural, so the singular form, ‘marquee’ (mar-key), was invented. Possibly contributing to this confusion was that the English were using ‘marquess’ as their equivalent of ‘marquis’, which they still use today.

This historical blunder seems especially significant considering the impression it has left on our understanding of ‘marquee’. For one, it now doesn’t refer to any old tent, but usually a rather atas, if not large, one.

‘Marquee’ later evolved to refer to the canopy outside theatres, then to the signage put up on them to grab the attention of passers-by. Names of celebrity performers, and later sportsmen, were displayed on these marquees to draw people in, similar to the prestige of atas French men.

Thus, ‘marquee’ came to represent not just a grand tent, but also the charms strong enough to entice the crowds. Strong enough, even, to build new bridges across rough waters.


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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