A Downhill Role
Dear WD: Lately I have seen several instances of confusing the word “role” with “roll” (in the sense of a list). The most frequent misuse seems to be using the word “role” to mean a list of some sort, usually (in my experience) the members of a church (saying “parish roles” instead of “parish rolls”), although I have also seen references to a “roll model.” Any insight into why this occurs or why it seems to be happening so much now? — Bob McGill.
Well, shucks, don’t be alarmed. It’s just another bit of evidence that civilization as we know it is skipping gaily down the slippery slope to the damnation bow-wows. End of the world. New Dark Ages. Nothing to worry about, really. Incidentally, if anyone comes looking for me, I’ll be hiding in the basement with ten cases of Spaghetti-O’s and my Oxford English Dictionary.
But seriously, folks, I say it’s all television’s fault. It used to be that the average person learned to distinguish between homophones (different words that sound the same, as “role” and “roll” do) by seeing them in print. Now that those dusty old bookshelves have been tossed out to make room for super-duper multimedia entertainment complexes in our national living room, no one knows the difference between “threw” and “through” (which is now usually spelled “thru,” anyway). Goodbye Beowulf, hello Baywatch. It’s gotten to the point that even the people who run television can’t spell common English words anymore. It is increasingly common to see one of the blow-dried twits known as “newscasters” blithely sitting in front of an enormous computer graphic containing the sort of grammatical or spelling error that would have shamed the fourth-grader of yesteryear.
Incidentally, while I certainly don’t wish to give aid and comfort to anyone who blurs the distinction between “roll” and “role,” I should probably point out that they are, essentially, the same word. “Role,” meaning the part one plays in a play (or, figuratively, life in general), comes from the French equivalent of our English “roll.” An actor’s “role” in the early days of the theater was that portion of the parchment manuscript roll containing the lines he or she was given to speak.