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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: August ::
Use of Word 'actor
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.1412  Monday, 12 July 2004

[1]     From:   Thomas Larque <
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        Date:   Friday, 9 Jul 2004 12:34:12 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1404 Use of Word 'actor'

[2]     From:   David Kathman <
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        Date:   Saturday, 10 Jul 2004 00:34:31 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1404 Use of Word 'actor'


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Thomas Larque <
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Date:           Friday, 9 Jul 2004 12:34:12 +0100
Subject: 15.1404 Use of Word 'actor'
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1404 Use of Word 'actor'

 >Being Scots, I naturally cashed the cheque, but I photocopied it first.
 >
 >            <g>

Wouldn't a true stereotypical Scot have photocopied the cheque and then
cashed it twice (both the real cheque *and* the photocopy)?

Congratulations on the prestigious publication.

Thomas Larque.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Kathman <
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 >
Date:           Saturday, 10 Jul 2004 00:34:31 -0500
Subject: 15.1404 Use of Word 'actor'
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1404 Use of Word 'actor'

 >Sorry to ask something that is probably basic but can anyone tell me
 >when the word 'actor' was first used?  When did actors stop calling
 >themselves players?

As several people have pointed out, the OED gives the first usage of the
relevant sense of "actor" as by Sidney c.1580, with "player" being
attested more than a century earlier, in 1463-4.  I suspect that
"player" in the relevant sense can be found earlier than that; the folks
at REED would probably know.

While the term "actor" was sometimes used from the late 16th century on,
as these citations show, it was a much more literary and highfalutin
term, used mainly in print.  Until well into the 17th century, "player"
was the ordinary, default term used in everyday speech, and was far more
common; not until after the Restoration did "actor" become a common word
in everyday use.  G. E. Bentley gives a good summary of the evidence in
the preface to his book *The Profession of Player in Shakespeare's
Time*.  In Henslowe's Diary, the term "player" occurs more than 20
times, but "actor" never occurs.  In the register of St. Giles
Cripplegate, "player" is used more than 150 times by several different
clerks over several decades, but the word "actor" never occurs.  The
registers of St. Saviour's Southwark call its residents "player" on more
than 80 occasions, but never "actor".  The register of St. Botolph's
Aldgate uses "player" or "stage-player" about 30 times, but "actor" is
entirely absent.  Master of the Revels Sir Henry Herbert referred to
"players" more than 50 times from 1622 to 1642 in his office book, but
never refers to "actors".  In Giles Dawson's compilation of payments
made to entertainers in 13 different towns in Kent from 1450 to 1642,
the word "player" is used between 700 and 800 times, but the word
"actor" is not used at all.  I haven't tried to make a similar count for
all the REED volumes covering other counties, but I'm pretty sure the
results would be about the same.

I always wince when I read a historical novel set in Shakespeare's time
and the characters start talking about "actors", because it's an
anachronism.  I similarly wince when such characters refer to "the Globe
theater", because that's another anachronism.  Until well into the
seventeenth century, the term in everyday speech for a building where
plays were performed was "playhouse".  The Theatre was one specific
playhouse which existed from 1576 to 1597, named after the structures in
ancient Greece and Rome where plays were performed; eventually, this
proper name was extended to refer to all playhouses, kind of like
"Kleenex" and "Xerox" in recent decades.  But that usage, like that of
"actor", was rare in ordinary speech until after the Restoration.  In
Herbert Berry's transcriptions of documents relating to all the
pre-Restoration playhouses in *English Professional Theatre, 1530-1660*
(Cambridge, 2000), I find many references to "playhouses", but none to
"theatres", except when referring to The Theatre.  It's possible that I
could be missing a reference somewhere, but in any case it's clear that
"playhouse" was the overwhelmingly preferred term.  Only after 1660,
following an 18-year period when drama was outlawed in England, did
"theatre" become a common term for a building where plays are performed.

Sorry for the rant.  Just had to get that out of my system.

Dave Kathman

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