hah(r)-lê-kwin • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A clown dressed in tights with a multicolored diamond pattern, such as is associated with the Italian commedia dell'arte. 2. Any clown or buffoon.
Notes: The harlequin (arlecchino in Italian) was the most popular zanni (source of English zany) or comic servant character in the Italian commedia dell'arte. His original costume of patches and rags evolved into the multicolored diamonds seen on his tights today. He was very nimble and agile though depicted as quite stupid and gluttonous. The audience expected to see him perform acrobatics, something gluttons seldom can do.
In Play: The harlequin lives today as the jester or the joker in decks of cards and the Joker of Batman Comics. The name itself has survived mostly in commercial trademarks, like the Harlequin romance novels. The word is used as an adjective referring to the brightly colored diamond shapes associated with harlequins: "Rose arrived after dinner in a pink and purple harlequin dress that only aggravated the crapulence everyone felt after such a heavy meal."
Word History: Although this word used to be closely associated with the Italian commedia dell'arte, an improvised burlesque that flourished in the 16th-18th centuries, English took it back from Old French Herlequin, where it had come to mean "a demon". Old French had acquired it earlier from English Herleking, a word that came from Old English Herla cyning "Herla the king". Herla was a mythical figure associated with the early Anglo-Saxon god, Woden. (Today we thank one of the colorful diamonds of the Agora, Katy Brezger, for suggesting this beautiful and mysterious Good Word.)
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