Word of the Day


© Getty Images


1. a play for children that makes them laugh, based on a traditional story and usually performed at Christmas

2. an annoying confused situation in which people are not behaving in a sensible way

Origin and usage

The first use of the noun pantomime is recorded in the early 17th century, when it meant a theatrical performer in the Roman Empire who performed mythological stories using gestures and actions. The word was borrowed directly from the Latin ‘pantomīmus’. The main current use dates from the early 18th century, while the extended use dates from the mid 20th century. The short form panto is first attested in the mid 19th century.


Many British children’s first experience of live theatre comes in the form of a visit to see a pantomime or panto. This popular seasonal entertainment, which runs in theatres all around the country from December to late January or early February, arose out of the Italian Commedia dell’Arte, with its stock characters of clowns, young lovers, and foolish old men. The modern pantomime is mainly aimed at children and family groups, and almost always features popular performers from TV and the comedy circuit. The modern panto is a combination of traditional stories, often fairy tales, with singing, dancing, slapstick, topical jokes and allusions, and often a large measure of innuendo to keep the adults in the audience entertained. The dame, a female character usually played by a large and very obviously masculine man, is a stock character. Audience participation is encouraged, with exchanges such as ‘Oh yes he did!’ ‘Oh no he didn’t!’ and ‘Look out, he’s behind you!’ leading to growing levels of hilarity.


“I’m really passionate about pantomime because it is often the first introduction for a child to theatre, and if that child has a great experience at a pantomime they will continue to come year after year.”
(John Barrowman)

Related words

comedy, drama, mime, musical

View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.

About the author

Macmillan Dictionary

Macmillan Dictionary

Leave a Comment