Ask a Librarian

Quiet in the Peanut Gallery!

November 22, 2008

Question: My mom always said, "Quiet in the peanut gallery!" when we were squabbling in the back seat. What is a "the peanut gallery" and where did this phrase come from?

Answer: Good question! It was the second balcony of theaters in the late 1800s that became known as "the peanut gallery". Peanuts were a popular theater snack of that time. In the theater, this second balcony (or the gallery) was so high up that it was often called the place of the "gallery gods." The people who were sitting in these second-balcony, cheap seats were often a rowdy bunch. When the performers irritated them, they would throw peanut shells and sometimes pennies down on the performers.

There are countless phrases and expressions used in everyday conversation that most of us don't fully understand, for example, the term "crocodile tears." Most people assume that this just stems from the fact that crocodiles are so large that they must have giant-sized tears. The real origin of this term, however, is from the ancient belief that crocodiles cry when they are devouring their prey. In reality, while crocodiles do produce tears to lubricate their eyes, they don't actually cry.

If you've always wanted to know the meaning behind a phrase or expression, the Library can help! Check out Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins or the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins here in the library's reference collection. If you need additional assistance, stop by the reference desk. We'll be there with bells on!

Today's question was answered by Cassandra Shortle, a reference librarian at Tompkins County Public Library. Send your questions by e-mail to, or call 272-4557 or visit the library at 101 E. Green St.

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