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An usher is someone who acts as an escort. Ushers have a number of roles, depending on the context in which they work. When ushers are mentioned, many people think specifically of the theatre usher, who guides people to their seats and assists them with problems during the show as they arise, but there are other types of ushers as well.
The word is derived from the Latin ostium, which means “door.” As this root word would imply, ushers are concerned with hospitality. They work to ensure that things run smoothly and comfortably at events. In addition to working in theatres, ushers can also be found at weddings, sports events, concerts, and churches, ensuring that guests find their seats and that their needs are met.
It is not uncommon for large buildings such as stadiums and operahouses to maintain their own staff of ushers. The ushers are intimately familiar with the building, and they typically are acquainted with the evacuation plan for the building along with basic first aid in case of emergencies. Ushers are usually easy to identify because they are in uniform, and they carry flashlights so that they can assist people in the dark.
In addition to simply seating people, an usher may also hand out programs for events, answer questions, help people find each other in a seating section, or perform other tasks. In churches, ushers often pass around collection baskets, and they sometimes assist the minister with preparations for the service. For events like weddings, family members may volunteer to be ushers, as they will be able to recognize the guests and seat them correctly.
In very formal wedding parties, ushers are part of the groom's party. In this sense, an usher is an assistant to the groom, and he is typically closely acquainted with the groom. The tradition of including ushers in a wedding party is quite ancient, and it is believed to stem from superstitious beliefs about evil spirits attacking the wedding party; if the groom was surrounded by a group of similarly dressed men, the spirits would not know whom to assault. Ushers also typically look after the guests at the wedding party, acting as proxies for the bride and groom, who are technically the hosts of the event.
Ushers also historically walked in other parties and processions, and were sometimes well acquainted with protocol to ensure that they could be helpful. In some cases, an usher was actually an appointed official who ensured that guests at formal events were introduced to each other and kept an eye on the door to ensure that the integrity of the guest list was maintained. Such ushers also worked in the formal quarters of judges and royalty as doorkeepers.