Stop the presses!

Dear Word Detective: I’ve been writing a research paper on colonial-era American printing (which, for the record, actually is interesting) and have come across many accounts of “typecasting,” as in cutting and casting lead type in molds. Does the theatrical term “typecasting” stem from type foundry lingo? — Robin D.

Hey, I’m there. I have no doubt that colonial-era printing is interesting, especially the lead-type technology of the day. I started spending time around newspapers when “hot lead” typesetting was still a common method of production, using lines of metal type cast on the amazing old Linotype machines (“line o’ type,” get it?). Incidentally, I was pleased to see that the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) includes the formation (for lack of a better term) “etaoin shrdlu,” defining it as “the letters set by running a finger down the first two vertical banks of keys on the left of the keyboard of a Linotype machine, used as a temporary marking slug but sometimes printed by mistake; any badly blundered sequence of type.” There are fuller explanations of both Linotype machines and “etaoin shrdlu” at Wikipedia.

Although movable type has been around since the 11th century, the term “typecasting,” referring to casting metal type is a fairly recent term, dating back only to around 1847. Metal type for printing was cast by hand before then, but the term itself seems to have arisen with the first mechanized methods of typecasting. This “typecasting” was always a fairly technical term and never acquired any figurative or metaphorical uses.

The use of “typecasting” to mean “casting an actor in a role requiring characteristics possessed by the actor” or “repeatedly casting an actor in the same types of roles” is much more recent, dating to the late 1920s (“Please do not conclude that I believe in ‘type-casting'; an actor should in his time play many sorts of part,” 1927). There doesn’t appear to be any real connection between the two types of “typecasting,” as this kind refers not to “type” in the printing sense but “type” in the “kind” sense, e.g., Edward G. Robinson was seen for much of his career as the “gangster” type, though he was excellent in non-gangster roles.

The fact that “typecasting” can have two completely unrelated meanings is a tribute to the flexibility of the elements “type” and “cast.” “Type” entered English in the 15th century with the meaning of “symbol or emblem,” derived ultimately from the Greek “typos,” meaning “impression, dent, original form,” having been formed from a root with the general meaning of “to strike.” The use of “type” to mean “letter on a block used in printing,” a development of the “impression” sense, dates to 1713. The “particular kind” sense of “type,” referring back to that “original form” sense, actually only dates to the 19th century.

“Cast” has also been around long enough to acquire a very broad range of meanings. The original sense of “cast” as a verb was, when it first appeared in English (taken from the Old Norse “kasta”), simply “to throw,” a sense we still use when we “cast” a pair of dice or, metaphorically, “cast” a vote. The use of “cast” to mean “to appoint actors to specific parts in a play or film” comes from a sense of “cast” meaning “to arrange, devise or plan,” and was first used in print in the early 18th century. This is actually the same sense of “cast” as used in the printing sense of “typecasting,” in which instance the “arrange” meaning developed to mean “pour metal or similar material into a mold so that it holds a shape when cool.”

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