Choir performing on stage © Jonas Persson

The origins of the word "choir"

The etymology of "choir" and why choros meant "dance" in Ancient Greece

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When we asked our community on social media what they thought the meaning of the original Greek word chorus is, everyone opted for meanings such as “chant”, “singing”, “group singing”, or even “polyphonic singing”... 

We bet you would have been as surprised as they were when we revealed that choros (or khoros or horos) actually means “dance” in the Greek language.

In fact, this word still occurs very often in the names of numerous Greek dances, as for instance the famous Hasapikos choros (“Dance of Butchers”).

Why then does the modern word “choir” derive from a word that literally means “dance”?

The etymology of the word “choir”

First, let’s start by unraveling the history of the word.

As said, today’s lemma “choir” finds its origins in the Ancient Greek lemma choros, which meant "round dance; dancing-place; band of dancers; company of persons in a play, under a leader, who take part in dialogue with the actors and sing their sentiments at intervals" (Online Etymology Dictionary).

This word evolved into the Latin chorus: "a dance in a circle, the persons singing and dancing, the chorus of a tragedy" (Online Etymology Dictionary).

It can then be noticed how, through the etymology of this word, a historical connection between choir and dancing resurfaces…

What is then the historical reason for this link between choir singing and dancing in the etymology of the word “choir”?

The connection between dance and singing in Ancient Greece

Choros, Khoros, Horos (Greek: χορός, romanized: khorós)

Round dance; dancing-place; band of dancers; company of persons in a play, under a leader, who take part in dialogue with the actors and sing their sentiments at intervals.
(Online Etymology Dictionary)

By having a closer look at the definition of the Greek choros, we see how it can be broken down in three different meanings:

  • a “round dance”,
  • a physical “dancing-place”,
  • or a group of performers, be it a “band of dancers” or a “company of persons in a play, under a leader, who take part in dialogue with the actors and sing their sentiments at intervals.”

The first two meanings find their roots in a past Greek cultural practice: Still nowadays, many Greek villages have a flat space named Chorostasi (or Khorostasi or Horostasi) where public dances, weddings, and other forms of social events and celebrations take place.

The term chorostasi means "threshing floor" and refers to the place where the threshing of wheat once took place. The threshing of wheat is the process of loosening the edible part of grain (or other crop) from the straw to which it is attached. Therefore, after the end of the harvesting season, the threshing floor remained unused and was then a great, empty, and flat place, perfect for celebration.

Due to the shape of the chorostasi, it is also claimed that the dances that took place there during celebration involved circular arrangements of movement.

The chorostasi is therefore believed to be the reason why the subsequent Greek lemma chorus denotes both “round dance” and a physical “dancing-place.”

In regards to its third meaning, the explanation of its origins is pretty simple: in Ancient Greece, singing and dancing were inseparable components of social celebrations, as well as of theatrical performances. In Ancient Greek drama, the choros consisted of a homogeneous, non-individualised group of performers (between 12 and 50). It was meant as a collective voice on the dramatic action and gave expression, between the acts, to the moral and religious sentiments evoked by the actions of the play.

It was therefore this coexistence between singing and dancing that led to this kind of performance being defined as chorus, which as said meant “dance”, and this ultimately explains the third meaning of the word.

Modern traces of ancient meanings

It is extremely fascinating that etymological traces of the Greek word choros can still be found today in different cultures precisely in the names of… their cultural circle dances!

In fact, the dances horo (Bulgaria) and hora (Romania), both in turn originating from the Balkans, as well as the dance choron/khoron/horon (Turkey) are all cultural and folk circle dances that have ancient origins.

Now you finally know the origins of the word “choir” and why it derives from choros meaning “dance” in Greek.

If this kind of historical trivia on the world of choir singing tickles you, why not reading this article on five mind-blowing facts about the oldest choral repertory surviving today ever found?

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