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Clowns in Translation: Our Love/Hate Relationship With Clowns Around the World

These days, we tend to associate clowns with either children’s entertainment or horror stories. Witness the “Great Clown Panic of 2016” currently sweeping the globe.  From small-town America to the UK to Australia and New Zealand, “creepy clowns” have been terrifying the populace.

This may seem like a modern-day problem, but actually, clowns have been with us always. Even the creepy ones. “Clown” figures exist in cultures and mythologies from around the world. And they’re often a little terrifying.

So, just in time for Halloween, let’s take a look at creepy clowns around the world.

A Brief History of Clowns Around the World

The first clowns we have a record of date back to Ancient Egypt, where dwarf clowns entertained the Pharoah as far back as 2500 BCE.  Meanwhile, in Ancient Greece, comedy plays featured performers in outlandishly designed and padded costumes wearing masks that exaggerated their facial features. Ancient Greek theater also featured “rustic buffoon” characters called sklêro-paiktês who are sometimes credited as the ancestors of modern 3304_-_athens_-_stoa_of_attalus_museum_-_theatre_mask_-_photo_by_giovanni_dallorto_nov_9_2009clowns.

The ancient Roman theater also featured a “rustic buffoon” laborer type, called a fossor.  Another type of Ancient Roman clown was the stupidus, a constant victim of tragicomic misfortune, often self-inflicted. As you might have guessed, this is the origin of the English word “stupid.”

But in a twist that will come as absolutely no surprise to those of you with coulrophobia, there’s another inspiration for the modern-day clown: the comic demon of medieval passion plays. Over time, the trickster demon turned into the trickster harlequin of the Italian Commedia dell’arte.

Meanwhile, court jesters, with their multicolored outfits, entertained kings, nobles and townspeople alike starting from the medieval period on to through the 18th century.

Where Does the Word “Clown” Come From?

The origin of the English word “clown” is uncertain, but it is thought to derive from a Nordic word meaning “clumsy.

Want to call someone a clown in another language? Many languages have two different words for clown: one borrowed from the English “clown” and one from the Italian “Pagliaccio.” Here’s how to say “clown” in 11 languages:

  1. French: clown or Paillasse 
  2. Russian:  кло́ун or пая́ц
  3. Greek κλόουν
  4. Danish/Norwegian: klovn
  5. Romanian clovn
  6. Italian: clown or pagliaccio
  7. Spanish: payaso
  8. Catalan and Galician: pallasso
  9. Turkish: palyaço
  10. German: Pajass
  11. Yiddish: פּאַיאַץ (payats)

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