Q: Living a life in theatre, I cast actors, though I don’t throw them out the window. “Cast” is one of those verbs with the same form in the past and present. Interesting word, and with so many meanings. I could look it up in my Compact OED, but I can’t read the tiny print—even with the magnifier.
A: Yes, “cast” is an interesting verb, but it’s not always the same in the present tense, past tense, and past participle. The third-person present is “casts.” Some similar verbs are “bet,” “cost,” “cut,” “hit,” “hurt,” “let,” “put,” and “shut.”
You’re right that “cast” has a lot of senses, as both a verb and a noun. All of them are derived from the Old Norse verb kasta (to cast or throw), which first appeared in Middle English and took the place of an Old English verb with the same meaning, weorpan, the ancestor of “warp.”
But as the Oxford English Dictionary points out, “cast,” a Scandinavian migrant that replaced an Old English word, “has now in turn been largely superseded in ordinary language and in the simple literal sense by throw,” which began life as the Old English þrawan (thrawan), and originally meant to twist or turn.
Today, the OED says, “cast” has an old-fashioned air when used in its original English sense: “ ‘Cast it into the pond’ has an archaic effect in comparison with ‘throw it into the pond.’ ” But the word “is in ordinary use in various figurative and specific senses, and in many adverbial combinations, as cast about.”
When “cast” first appeared in the Middle English of the early 13th century, Oxford says, it was a verb meaning “to project (anything) with a force of the nature of a jerk, from the hand, the arms, a vessel, or the like.”
The dictionary’s first citation is from Hali Meidenhad (Holy Virginity,) an alliterative homily written around 1230: “Ha cast hire fader sone se ha iboren wes fram þe hehste heuene in to helle grunde” (“As soon as she [Pride] was born, she cast her father from the highest heaven into the deep of hell”).
The OED’s earliest example for the noun “cast” used in the sense of a throw is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “If a stoon he throwe, and with the cast sleeth [slayeth], lijk maner he shal be punishid” (Numbers 35:17-18).
Interestingly, the noun “cast” showed up earlier in a figurative example that likened the Last Judgment to a game of chance where everything is risked on a throw of dice:
“On domesdai be-for iustise, þar all es casten on a cast” (“On doomsday before justice, there all is risked on a single cast”). From Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem believed written sometime before 1325.
As we’ve said, the word “cast” has a great many senses, so many that the OED arranges the verb in 13 categories, though some of the usages are labelled archaic, obsolete, rare or dialect:
“I. To throw. II. To throw down, overthrow, defeat, convict, condemn. III. To throw off so as to get quit of, to shed, vomit, discard. IV. To throw up (earth) with a spade, dig (peats, a ditch, etc.). V. To put or place with haste or force, throw into prison, into a state of rage, sleep, etc. VI. To reckon, calculate, forecast. VII. To revolve in the mind, devise, contrive, purpose. VIII. To dispose, arrange, allot the parts in a play. IX. To cast metal, etc. X. To turn, twist, warp, veer, incline. XI. To plaster, daub. XII. Hunting and Hawking senses, those of doubtful position, and phrases. XIII. Adverbial combinations.”
Here are some of the more common uses of the verb that have evolved from its original sense of throwing, along with dates of the earliest OED citations: “cast out” (circa 1200), “cast into prison” (before 1225), “cast a fishing line” (c. 1250), “cast away” (c. 1325), “cast an eye, glance, look, etc.” (c. 1385), “cast off” (c. 1400), “cast aside” (1475), “cast molten metal” (1512), “cast about” (1575), “cast with plaster or the like” (1577), “cast a shadow” (1630), “cast the parts of a play” (1711), “cast some light” (1752), “cast adrift” (1805), “cast a stitch” (in knitting, 1840), and “cast a horoscope” (1855).