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In her role as a good parent my wife has recently attended an unusually large number of high school drama productions.
The word role meaning “the part one plays” or “the character one assumes” appeared in English first in 1606.
At the time it had an almost identical meaning to the one I used in describing my wife’s motherly duties. (In my role as father I went to the play too, never fear; just not quite so many times as my wife did.)
English adopted the word role from French where, before its meaning had evolved to that just described, it had been a theatre word.
That makes sense doesn’t it?
The word role only gets interesting when you realize why the French began calling a theatrical part a role.
In preparation for a play the actors receive copies of their scripts and spend time studying them and memorizing their lines.
Today those scripts are likely to be printed or photocopied sheets stapled together, but at one time actors studied their parts by reading the play as written on a scroll.
A scroll is of course one long piece of paper or some other writing material that is impractically shaped for keeping flat.
Instead it is rolled up.
So the reason the word role evolved was because actors were studying their lines off of rolls of paper.
Other kinds of documents in addition to theatrical scripts were called rolls.
The word roll itself came from a diminutive Latin word rotula which in turn came from rota meaning “wheel.”
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of several books including his latest History of Wine Words – An Intoxicating Dictionary of Etymology from the Vineyard, Glass, and Bottle.