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Hamming It Up: Too Many "Bad Actors"

When it gets cold and wintry, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said, "alongside acts of goodwill and kindness, a major storm like this also brings out bad actors who take advantage of their customers." (If they're lousy at pretending to be good Samaritans, why are they a threat?)

"Google and YouTube 'take action against bad actors that seek to game our systems'" by selling fake social media clicks. (Do they unconvincingly sound as if they really, really like your post?)

And an article looking at the kind of scams portrayed in the movie The Wolf of Wall Street noted that "no one has outlawed greed and foolishness, and some bad actors continue to operate in every field."

Therein lies one reason to avoid the jargon "bad actor." Many people who read "bad actor" immediately think of something akin to Lindsay Lohan in Liz & Dick, not someone seeking to do harm.

The use of "bad actor" seems to have risen a great deal in recent years. In the last quarter of the 20th century, most references in the Nexis database were in technical journals, often referring to "bad actors" that create undesirable chemical results.

Most modern dictionaries say "bad actors" are akin to troublemakers, and journalists in love with the term (over)-use it as such. But certainly since 9/11, government officials tend to refer to "bad actors" as more along the lines of an Assad.

"Actor" originally meant "A guardian, a steward; a person who acts on behalf of another," The Oxford English Dictionary says. And though that meaning is considered "obscure" by the OED, doing something for something or someone else is still a part of "acting," be it in grammar, where the "actor" is a subject performing the action of a verb; in law, where it's the instigator or part of a legal action; or on the stage.

Merriam-Webster's Unabridged Dictionary traces the first use of "bad actor" to 1901. But an 1889 Sanskrit dictionary also includes a definition of the word with the synonyms "wicked" and "a bad actor."

In What I Saw in America in 1922, the British writer G.K. Chesterton used his characteristic literary twists to discuss American expressions. He wrote:

An American friend of mine was telling me of his adventures as a cinema-producer down in the south-west where real Red Indians were procurable. He said that certain Indians were "very bad actors." … As my friend was a cinema-producer, I supposed he meant that the Indians were bad cinema actors. But the phrase has really a high and austere moral meaning, which my levity totally missed. A bad actor means a man whose actions are bad or morally reprehensible. So that I might have embraced a Red Indian who was dripping with gore, or covered with atrocious crimes, imagining there was nothing the matter with him beyond a mistaken choice of the theatrical profession.

So it seems a "bad actor" was really bad, then less bad, and is heading back to being bad. In any case, "bad actor" has had its run. If you must use it, keep in mind that some people will see true evil, some will see merely dishonesty, and still others will see only a lousy thespian.

Of course, there are times when calling someone a "bad actor" could be intentionally unclear. In the 1976 Republican primaries President Gerald Ford said one of his opponents was "a bad actor who wasn't up to a White House role," according to a Newsweek article.

The challenger? Ronald Reagan. Whether Ford meant to be double-edged is unclear.


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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.

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Tuesday January 7th, 3:45 PM
Comment by: Neal WhitmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
I'd been wondering about this, after hearing about "bad actors" in news reports and picturing William Shatner and Al Pacino carrying dirty bombs.

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