Entries linking to theatre
late 14c., "open air place in ancient times for viewing spectacles and plays," from Old French theatre (12c., Modern French théâtre, improperly accented) and directly from Latin theatrum "play-house, theater; stage; spectators in a theater" (source also of Spanish, Italian teatro), from Greek theatron "theater; the people in the theater; a show, a spectacle," literally "place for viewing," from theasthai "to behold" (related to thea "a view, a seeing; a seat in the theater," theates "spectator") + -tron, suffix denoting place. (In Old English glosses, theatrum is rendered by wafungstede "a place for sights").
Meaning "building where plays are shown" is from 1570s in English. Transferred sense of "plays, writing, production, the stage" is from 1660s. Generic sense of "place of action" is from 1580s; especially "region where war is being fought" (1914). Spelling with -re arose late 17c. and prevailed in Britain after c. 1700 by French influence, but American English retained or revived the older spelling in -er.
word-ending that sometimes distinguish British from American English. In the U.S., the change from -re to -er (to match pronunciation) in words such as fibre, centre, theatre began in late 18c. and became standard there over the next 25 years at the urging of Noah Webster (the 1804 edition of his speller, and especially his 1806 dictionary). The -re spelling, like -our, however, had the authority of Johnson's dictionary behind it and was unmoved in Britain, where it came to be a point of national pride, contra the Yankees.
Despite Webster's efforts, -re was retained in words with -c- or -g- (such as ogre, acre, the latter of which Webster insisted to the end of his days ought to be aker, and it was so printed in editions of the dictionary during his lifetime). The -re spelling generally is more justified by conservative etymology, based on French antecedents. It is met today in the U.S. only in Theatre as an element in the proper names of entertainment showplaces, where it is perhaps felt to inspire a perception of bon ton.
updated on November 23, 2012