Word Hate: Academic actors

I remember once during my tenure as Editor of Arts Professional magazine asking a very academic writer to change her use of the word ‘actors’, meaning principal personnel in a given situation, to something else – because to us, in the arts sector, the word means someone who works in theatre, TV or film. She was taken aback, as if such an interpretation had not even occurred to her, but she complied.

I’ve just come across another use of the word in a review by the fabulous Linda Colley, who has written so many great history books such as Britons and Captives. Reviewing “Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain” by John Darwin, in today’s Guardian Review, she writes:

‘Empires, generically, were evil creations of the past that have now been satisfactorily swept away by nation states. As for the empire that was hewn out over the course of three centuries by varieties of British and Irish actors, this was the biggest of its kind, affecting every continent.

Now, technically, literally, the word ‘actor’ means someone who performs an action or series of actions, but for centuries it has meant someone who acts on stage, screen or street. I suspect this new use is US academic language, but it’s extremely unhelpful: reading the above, one’s mind leaps immediately to the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd. (The proximity of the word ‘varieties’ adds a whiff of the music hall, too.) Using ‘actor’ might also add an unintended layer of metaphor.

It’s a tricky one, as ‘actor’ is a nice, quick and easy short cut. However, she could have written ‘by various British and Irish leaders’, or ‘variously, by the British and Irish’.

So my plea (in my first Word Hate piece for ages) is to resist taking this usage of ‘actor’ into general speech, if you possibly can. Thanks frightfully.

Pip pip!

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Published in: on December 29, 2012 at 13:06  Comments (5)  

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Speaking as an actor: seconded!

  2. Conversely, I hate the use – by those who should know better in the arts world – of the word “product”. This doesn’t just mean the Maltesers in the foyer stall, nor the Bard memorabilia, but a stage play or other piece of art, seen merely as a marketing opportunity.

  3. I have to disagree – ‘actor’ (for one who is active in a situation) was surely being used when the word ‘player’ would have been used for those on the stage.

  4. Reminds me also of a strong rebuke I got back in the 70’s from an editor of the Stage for putting in an advert for an Actor M/F. ‘Why not use the beautiful and time-honoured word Actress…?’ And there was me being all progressive – well told off!

  5. Cripes Paulo, I’m afraid that hare is still running…! There are certain middle-class rural parties that I go to where perfectly nice people ask me what I do, and if I’m incautious enough to say “I’m an actor” they go all arch and say “surely you mean ACTRESS!!”. At this point I affect to notice, for the first time in my life and with suitable overreaction, my own breasts, and gasp: “oh my god…. you’re RIGHT!”. Then I change the subject. NB I don’t object to be called an actress, I just object to be corrected when I state my profession. Quite often these days I just say “I work in theatre production” and avoid the whole issue.

    Badgey, I’m not sure the word “actor” was used much without a theatrical context in the past – I’ve often seen it used metaphorically: “the actors in this drama” – when describing non-theatrical events, and I think this usage that Lady Eff points out is indeed new (and irritating!). Shakespeare used “actor” and “player” pretty interchangeably. I love the word “player”, but if I said it in the above-mentioned context they would probably think I meant something completely different and I’d be lumbered with a long explanation. Or someone would say: “surely you mean PLAYESS…!!”.

    And Jane – as a theatre producer I confess I do use the word “product” (usually with an exaggerated LA accent) when necessary as I am “producing” something which I sell to theatres. But I would never use it to a punter! I have my standards!


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