Etymology Usage

Cameo appearance

Q: Can you refer to the appearance of an individual in a movie or on TV as a “cameo” if he is listed in the credits under his own name or has a speaking part as himself?

A: Most of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked define “cameo” (short for “cameo appearance” or “cameo role”) as a minor part played by a well-known performer in a single scene of a film, play, TV series, or similar work.

But that definition may be a bit too restrictive. The term “cameo” is commonly used for such an appearance by any prominent person, whether a performer or not.

Can the celebrity in a cameo role be listed in the credits? We don’t see why not. Donald Trump, for example, is credited for his brief appearance in the film Zoolander.

And can the celebrity have a speaking role? Again, we don’t see why not, as long as the celeb doesn’t speak a lot. Michelle Obama had a speaking—and dancing—cameo role on the Nickelodeon sitcom iCarly earlier this month.

When English borrowed the term “cameo” from Italian in the 13th century, it referred to a precious stone with two layers of different colors, and a figure carved in the upper layer.

In the mid-19th century, according the Oxford English Dictionary, the meaning of the word expanded to include “a short literary sketch or portrait.”

And in the early 20th century, OED citations show, this sense was extended to include “a small character part that stands out from the other minor parts.”

Interestingly, none of the OED examples of the usage mention a celebrity appearing in a minor role. But here’s an example from the Jan. 21, 1993, obituary of Audrey Hepburn in the New York Times:

“Her last screen role, in 1989, was a cameo as an angel easing the hero toward death in Steven Spielberg’s ‘Always,’ a role in which the character’s grace and serenity echoed the image Miss Hepburn had maintained throughout a 40-year career.”

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