Mind your language

The dramatic evolution of ‘actor’

14 August 2021

9:00 AM

14 August 2021

9:00 AM

‘That chap in Line of Duty. That’s what I’d call a bad actor,’ said my husband with vague certainty. He was responding to a remark on the wireless about Iran being a bad actor.

Language, as usual, is in a state of transition. Actor is now employed to mean some person, or moral entity, acting in a good or bad way. But if you ask anyone what an actor is, the answer would be a person taking part in a drama, on stage or the equivalent.


This goes to show the difference between the main meaning of a word now and the meaning of words from which it originates. Actor in the Oxford English Dictionary, which takes an historical approach, is listed with the first (obsolete) meaning of ‘a person involved in a legal action’. That meaning was present in the Latin word actor, which more surprisingly also meant ‘a herdsman’ (who actively drives the beasts).

The stage meaning of actor was not used in English until Shakespeare was a little boy in the 1560s. The current vogue for talking about bad actors, or wrongdoers as we used to call them, has led some writers to hyphenate the term, to lessen my husband’s confusion. A newspaper article on computer hacking said: ‘If the bad-actor is, say, a nation state with a long time horizon, deep pockets and the necessary skills, then most defences can be compromised.’

Also from the Latin verb agere are the busy words agent and agency. The ordinary sense of agent is no doubt someone acting on behalf of another, such as an estate agent or indeed a theatrical agent. But a special sense, snoring away since the 17th century, has awoken. Chattering classes who see people in terms of their use of power now speak of agency, usually as something lacking.

Agency has meant capacity or ability to act ever since the days of the indefatigable philosopher John Sergeant (1623-1707), described by an enemy as ‘in perpetuall squibbles with everyone’. (Those were hard days for controversialists. Another opponent accused him of stoking up the Great Fire of London with fireballs.) Sergeant contrasted agency to patiency. Patiency is patiently awaiting its moment to come back into vogue.

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