Tannoy: (UK) A loudspeaker or public-address system. From Tannoy, the trademark of a speaker manufacturer founded in London in 1926 and based in Scotland since the 1970s; genericized since the 1940s. Also used as a generic verb, “to call someone over a public-address system.”
Tannoy is a blend of tantalum alloy, the material used in an electrolytic rectifier developed by the company. The chemical element tantalum (symbol Ta) was discovered in 1802 and named for Tantalus, the character from Greek mythology who was forced to stand for eternity beneath a tree whose fruit was just out of his grasp. As you may have guessed, “Tantalus” is also the source of the English verb tantalize.
I knew about Tantalus and tantalize but had never encountered tannoy until I read a story by the actor John Lithgow published in the New York Times earlier this month. Lithgow is the only American in the cast of a current National Theatre production, The Magistrate; his essay is about the differences between US and UK theater customs. Here’s the lede:
The language of theater here is slightly different from ours in New York. The crackly speaker in a London dressing room is called the “tannoy.” The opening night of a London show is called its “Press Night.” When a stage manager announces the start of a performance, London actors don’t hear the word “places.” They hear “beginners.”
If you aren’t in London, you may be able to see Lithgow in The Magistrate in your own city through the magic of National Theatre Live, which broadcasts productions live (or almost live) to cinemas around the world. I caught The Magistrate in Berkeley last week and enjoyed it: it’s a late-Victorian farce, so expect plenty of groan-worthy plot contrivances along with well-earned laughs. The staging and acting—Lithgow’s included—are first rate. Check the site for broadcast dates.