Mask - masque

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The two words mask and masque are the same word in different spellings. (Both are pronounced 'mahsk', IPA: /mɑːsk/.) Since English spelling became regularized in the eighteenth century, the two spellings have been used in different contexts: before then, they were used interchangeably. A double use can be seen in 1841 Dickens's Barnaby Rudge (1841) iv. 258 (cited OED): "Your blockhead father ... slips him on a mask and domino, and mixes with the masquers."

  • A mask is a covering for the face, usually to conceal identity, or at least to convey anonymity. It may be of cloth, such as the masks that cartoonists love to show burglars wearing; it may be of cardboard, pasteboard or paper mache, and worn at masked balls of a traditional sort; it may be of wood or other hard materials, and worn for ritual or theatrical purposes. The verb 'to mask' means 'to put on a mask, for the purposes of disguise, concealment or to assume a different personality'.
  • Masque is the French spelling, and is the preferred spelling in Modern English for 'a court entertainment'. Masques were the most extravagant productions of high art, in England from the reign of Henry VIII (who wrote for masques) until the English Civil War in the mid-seventeenth century, when all theatrical performances were banned. As performers were often gentlemen (and even ladies) in a time when the theatre was regarded as vulgar, it was usual for them to be disguised by wearing masks - hence the name. (The art form was earlier known as a 'disguising'.)
The masque had originated in Renaissance Italy under the patronage of Lorenzo de' Medici ('the Magnificent') (1449-92), and developed the skills of dance, music and scenery. In France, it developed towards the ballet; in England, towards the theatre. Masques were often performed by courtiers and other 'amateurs'. They were often fulsome allegorical flatteries of the monarch: Queen Elizabeth witnessed many such as she arrived 'on progress' at one of the country houses she honoured with her visits. The masque reached a peak with those written by Ben Jonson (appointed Court Poet in 1603) with sets designed by Inigo Jones (1573-1652), the architect. (His invention of a curtain drawn back over a proscenium arch to reveal an elaborate 'set-scene' gives us the modern word 'set' to mean a stage scene.) Jonson's spelling of masque, first in 1601, seems to have set the modern distinction between mask and masque on its way.
Baldick (2008), s.v 'masque', cites Stephen Orgel, The Illusion of Power (1975) and the on-line resource [Illustrated resource on masques at University of Victoria] for more detailed information; OED cites S. Anglo 'The evolution of the Early Tudor disguising, pageant, and mask' in Renaissance Drama (1968) New Ser. 1 3, 44.
    • A masquerade was originally a masked ball, and then an alternative name for a masque, as above. So
      • the verb 'to masquerade' has come to mean 'to pretend', often with an implication of deceit, and 'a [mere] masquerade' is a futile pretence with the intention of deceiving.
    • A masquer can be either someone who has put on a mask to attend a masked ball or similar entertainment (as in the Carnival Ball in Venice (a cliché in films)); or a performer in a masque.
Etymological note: both spellings derive from the Italian maschera or mascara 'mask'. This is possibly a descendant of the post-classical Latin masca, 'evil spirit' which is perhaps ultimately cognate with a group of Romance forms meaning 'to smear, blacken': an early form of disguise was to daub the face - as can be seen in the modern English use of mascara as 'a cosmetic to darken eyelashes'. AWE trusts that it is not just 'smeared' or 'daubed', but used simply to 'blacken'.