Ordinarily my husband is punctilious in keeping the pages of the Telegraph straight, especially when it is read by other people (me). ‘It’s all scrunched up,’ he exclaims if even the notoriously loose slip-page in the paper is misaligned. But he shook the sports pages into a toy-boat shape and slapped them against his leg when he read out this sentence: ‘There is a belief that a marquee annual tournament would develop cricket’s following.’
‘Are they going to play it in a tent?’ he cried, knowing they weren’t. The sports pages have imported a peculiar new meaning for marquee. Its classic form is in the phrase marquee signing, which means ‘new star’.
This sense comes from American showbiz. Since the 1920s, marquee has been used there for the canopy over the entrance to a theatre or cinema. It need not have space to allow cars to drive beneath it, as a porte-cochère does.
Anyway the theatrical marquee is where you might have your name in lights, and so a marquee name is that of a star.
In today’s usage an allied meaning has developed. The Guardian recently referred to Donald Trump’s ‘marquee campaign promise of building a wall along the southern US border’. The promise had been highlighted as if in neon. To those of us for whom marquee speaks of agricultural shows and wet weddings, the Sunset Boulevard connotations remain alien.
But these things solidify over time and meanings become insulated from their origins. We have seen it with boutique, once a small shop (and in the deeper past related to bodega and apothecary, from the ancient Greek apotheke ‘store-house’). In modern times, boutique became a shop with fashionable pretensions, and, from the 1960s, an adjective for the specialised and exclusive, notably boutique hotels. It is still not a term I would use, though an older word for a smart little house, bijou, is just as impossible. To talk of a bijou residence makes one sound like Julian and Sandy on Round the Horne.
But last week I spotted an entirely artless reference to a boutique shop. Perhaps soon the star of the camping suppliers will be a marquee tent.