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'Entertainment': A Dirty Word?

May 01, 2000|LAURA SHAMAS | Laura Shamas teaches at the USC School of Theater. She also writes plays and screenplays

"Entertainment." It's a word we use so often in Los Angeles, home of the "entertainment industry," that we don't think about its meaning anymore. We take it for granted. As a category, entertainment is given a lower-brow status than "the arts," although financially, entertainment is considered the more desirable enterprise. We acknowledge the arts in Los Angeles, but we put food on the table through entertainment.

Popular entertainment deserves more cultural respect than it gets. What would happen if entertainment were recognized for what it does for our souls as well as our pocketbooks? Would that change the way people in the entertainment industry work and the way they "entertain"? The word's archaic meanings indicate that an attitudinal shift toward entertainment is warranted.

Most people are surprised to learn the linguistic heritage of the word "entertainment." We know that if something sparks our interest or is amusing or diverting, it is entertaining; we also grasp that to entertain means to offer hospitality, or to consider a notion. But its lexical roots show that its original usage was hardly a casual, hospitable or trivial one. Instead, it had a significant function.

From an etymological perspective, the verb derives from two main sources: the Old French entretenir, which means to maintain or hold together, and the Latin inter (between) and tenere (to hold). These older roots imply that entertainment has a special purpose: to bring an audience to an imaginary "between" world, beyond reality, and to maintain their interest sufficiently to hold them there.

This older meaning also suggests that to entertain is to create a temporary collective; if you can hold a group together, you've centralized and unified a community for a ritual, performance or event--a civic-social-psychological function. Going to a show means you're embarking upon an otherworldly voyage with a bunch of folks, and you won't be leaving your seat. In fact, you'll be held there, riveted, if it's entertaining. Whether a rock concert or an action movie, you are taking part in a communal experience that involves a large, diverse group of people.

Interestingly, the function of "holding together" is shared by "art" and "entertainment," according to the dictionary. Most of us think of the differences between the two categories, but in etymological terms, they share a purpose: containing community. The origin of "arts" is from the Old French arte (art) and the Latin ars (arts) and artus (joint, holding together).

OK, we all know that you have to hold an audience's attention to entertain them, but to unify a group of people as you take them to an illusive "between" world is a very special calling. U.S. culture in the 21st century is more and more fragmented, with new technologies changing our sense of community and interaction. Entertainment is one of the great rituals of American life; increasingly, studies show that being entertained is perhaps the one national ritual we all share.

Community, unity, sustenance from the imagination: This is what you give an audience when you truly entertain. It is time to recover the full meaning of "entertainment" from those early roots. The ability to hold and unify an audience during a possibly life-changing, aesthetic excursion to the threshold space between the real and the imagined is significant and serious. It fulfills a need of the psyche.

As a category, it deserves more appreciation for the cultural role it plays. More than a revenue-generating industry, it's a national ritual with the ability to unify and heal. That's entertainment.

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