Today, a peanut gallery is a group of people who give unwanted comments, criticisms, or advice. This is sort of a figurative take on the phrase, but when it was first coined in 1874, a peanut gallery was a very literal part of vaudeville theatres, referring to the cheapest seats in the back or balcony. These got associated with peanuts because they were the least expensive snack sold at the theatre, because they were most sold in that section, and because hecklers would sometimes throw peanuts from there to express displeasure at a performance. Some people think there may be racial undertones to the phrase, as those sections were often reserved for segregated African Americans and the negative connotation around the people who sit there is prejudicial. The phrase was popularized, made less offensive, and associated with children when the TV show Howdy Doody began to use it to refer to its live audience of kids.
Hello! I'm Adam Aleksic, a sophomore studying government and linguistics at Harvard University, where I co-founded the Harvard Undergraduate Linguistics Society. In addition to etymology, I also really enjoy politics, vexillology, geography, board games, conlanging, and law.