Teens in formal clothing, rented limos and lavish corsages: Prom season has begun.

Teens in formal clothing, rented limos and lavish corsages: Prom season has begun.

The word “prom,” for a dance or ball, is a contraction of “promenade.” The last syllable, “-nade,” should rhyme with “made.” At least, that option is listed first in Webster’s.

“Promenade” is a direct descendant of the French “promener,” meaning “to take for a walk.” That came from the Late Latin “prominare,” “to drive (animals) onward,” whose stem came from the Latin “minari,” “to threaten.” That last one is also the source of “menace.”

So there are elements of being herded and being threatened in the evolution of “prom,” to which many an awkward adolescent probably can relate.

A “promenade” also can be “a leisurely walk,” especially “to display one’s finery,” or a
public place for such an excursion.

The word “ball,” in the sense of a formal social dance, also has a French ancestor, “bal,” which came from the Old French “baller,” “to dance.”

That in turn traces back to the Late Latin “ballare,” which is also the source of “ballad” and the inspiration for “ballet.”

All of those have a common ancestor in the Greek “ballein,” which means “to throw,” in particular the sense of “ballizein,” “to dance, jump about.”

That feeling of dancing for joy is reflected in the slang use of “ball,” as in “having a ball” — “an enjoyable time, event or experience.”

The ultimate origin of “dance,” however, is a mystery. Its immediate precursors are the Middle English “dauncen” and the Old French “danser,” but before that is all speculation.

“Dance” is used for a range of motions in addition to those in response to music, such as sparkles dancing on the water, a politician dancing around an issue or the classic command from a gunslinger in a western movie as he fires shots around someone’s feet: “Dance!”

The word also appears in several colorful phrases, including two that apply to the ultimate last waltz.

The “dance of death,” also known by the French phrase “danse macabre,” is a symbolic representation of a personified Death leading people whirling off to their demise. This portrayal was especially popular in medieval art and appears occasionally, sometimes as a spoof, in films.

The other fatal phrase is “dance on nothing,” which means “to be hanged.”

There’s also a dance of extreme loyalty and one of going against the grain. The former, which I confess I hadn’t seen before, is “dance attendance,” which means “to attend assiduously and obsequiously,” “be in waiting or at beck and call” or “court favor.”

The latter is “dance to another tune,” which is “to alter one’s actions or opinions as a result of changed conditions.” It’s not quite the same as “march to a different drummer,” but both imply something outside the norm.

And then there’s the informal “song and dance,” which refers to “talk, especially an explanation, that is pointless, devious or evasive.”

I think we’ve all heard plenty of that tune lately.

Barry Wood is a copy editor at the Rockford Register Star. Contact him at bwood@rrstar.com.