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Can I call a film actor a thespian, or does this term exclusively relate to acting on a theater stage?

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I'd do a quick check of Google Books for the name of a film actor (who never acted on stage) with thespian, but I don't know of any film actors who never acted on stage. – msh210 Nov 30 '11 at 19:03
I'm not aware of any restriction on the medium for a thespian. But then again, the kinds of people who read articles that use the word thespian might be. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Nov 30 '11 at 19:11
Apparently Thespian is a proper noun! Who'd've thought? – Matt E. Эллен Nov 30 '11 at 19:28
“That sounded strange to me, so I called my thespian friend, Eric Oleson (it's okay to call him that because he's openly thespian).” [Newsweek] :-) – Gnawme Nov 30 '11 at 19:38
There are plenty of film actors who have never acted on stage in any professional means. A substantial number of American actors, for a start. Probably less common for British actors though. – Noldorin Nov 30 '11 at 20:25
up vote 7 down vote accepted

It’s predominantly, but not exclusively, used for stage actors.

Dictionaries — Merriam Webster and the OED — define it just as actor, without restriction. Searching well-edited English-language newspapers and browsing through the top hits confirms, though, that it is associated much more with stage than screen: New York Times, The Guardian, Sydney Morning Herald.

(Ideally, a COCA or Ngrams search would be better, as @msh210 suggests in comments, but I haven’t managed to think of a query that would work well for this question.)

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The only correct answer I've seen so far. If you used thespian in common speech people would probably presume stage actor, unless it was otherwise clear from context. – Noldorin Nov 30 '11 at 20:25
The Grauniad is well-edited? – TimLymington Dec 1 '11 at 14:34

Originally it was Thespian (from Thespis the legendary founder of theatre in Athens), and referred only to study of tragedy and by extension the theatre in general. (My Chambers dictionary has "an actor (jocular)", so would presumably be horrified to think it might be extended to a performer in the kinematographs). But words change, and I would think a word for 'someone who performs in the theatre only' would be so little used as to be useless. My own feeling is that thespian has a flavour of 'artist', so probably should be used for an actor you respect, rather than those hardworking professionals who appear in daytime soap operas.

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I think you'd do better not to use it at all, for film actors or for any other kind. It has a jocular tone, and rather a feeble one at that, which you may wish to avoid.

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I can't hear thespian anymore without thinking of Master Thespian – Gnawme Dec 3 '11 at 6:23

Merriam-Webster is concise:

thespian, noun: ACTOR.

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