Where does the Term Soap Opera Come from?

How these thoughts link together like a chain! The other day, while writing about the word omnibus, I thought of a Sunday soap-opera omnibus as an example of how we use the word.

This of course made me think about the term soap opera itself. It’s clearly an unusual term, not obviously linked to that which it describes. Soap operas, after all, aren’t about soap, and they’re certainly not operas.

At the same time, it feels quite appropriate, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s just because we’re so used to the term that we don’t question how seemingly odd it is. Perhaps that’s why, even though I’ve occasionally wondered briefly as to the origins of the term, I’ve never really thought about it very deeply.

As is often the case, the story is pretty simple. It was originally intended as a faintly disparaging term. Soap refers to the fact that soap was often advertised during early soap operas, and opera as a somewhat ironic reference to their melodramatic storylines (particularly American soap operas).

You may also be aware of the related term space opera, derived from soap opera. This is usually used to refer to science-fiction stories on an epic scale that take place in space. Star Wars is usually provided as the standard example. Funnily enough, space opera was also originally intended as an insulting term, referring to sci-fi stories with hackneyed plots and writing styles. And it didn’t actually come directly from soap opera. Instead, it was inspired by the term horse opera, used to refer to clichéd western films and TV shows, referring of course to their similarities to soap operas.

Funnily enough, considering how in these cases, the opera part of the term is usually used to refer to the melodramatic or spectacular aspects of a work of fiction, the actual word opera has a much humbler origin. When it entered the English language in the 17th century, it came from the Italian opera, literally meaning simply work or composition, itself from the Latin opus, also meaning work (as in magnum opus, meaning masterpiece).

It’s funny how soap opera and space opera both became respectable terms (though people forgot about horse opera as they forgot about westerns in general), and opera went from referring to any work of any kind, to being associated with melodrama and the grandiose.

No matter how much we might try to pin their meanings down, words will always slip away from us and mean whatever they want to mean!

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