I've recently seen a musical and, on the night I went, three roles were being played by understudies instead of the regular actors.

This term has always puzzled me, partly because I've never found a satisfactory translation for it in my native tongue. However, while I well understand its meaning and although I've researched various dictionaries, I haven't found clear indications of its origin. The Online Etymology Dictionary deals with the word in one line and the OALD, normally so generous with references to the origin of terms, doesn't even try.

Can anyone tell me how this word came into existence?

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    @MattЭллен. I'm curious to understand what the reasons are behind the choice of terms. If Jay is right and the two actors work together, it would be something similar to what happened with other kinds of artists in the past (e.g. Cimabue and Giotto for painting). However, according to the dictionary, the term seems to have been coined quite recently, more or less one century ago. – Paola May 10 '12 at 19:48
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    Could somebody please explain how this is general reference or post a link to a standard internet reference source that answers the question? – zpletan May 10 '12 at 19:52
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    @Paola, since it's closed, I can't answer, but I would go (in the absence of anything more substantive) with some lesser senses of under- and study that NOAD lists: "lower in status; subordinate" and "[with adj. ] a person who learns a skill or acquires knowledge at a specified speed : I'm a quick study. [ORIGIN: originally theatrical slang, referring to an actor who memorizes a role.]" – zpletan May 10 '12 at 19:55
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    @zpletan. I appreciate your explanation. However, I feel there should be something else to it, otherwise the same kind of reasoning could be applicable in various fields. Anyone who is in a junior position could be defined an "understudy" as they are learning a profession/trade/... following the instructions (and possibly the example) of someone more experienced. It seems not to be the case. And I find it strange that in dictionaries this term is so sparsely defined. P.S. What would be a standard internet reference source apart from Online Etymology Dictionary? – Paola May 10 '12 at 20:06
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    @MattЭллен. I regret to say that you quoted exactly the same source which I linked in my post, but I find it difficult to believe that you find that explanation satisfactory. – Paola May 10 '12 at 20:08

In English we regularly say that person A "studied under" person B, meaning that B was the teacher of A. "Study" should be plain enough: that's the common meaning of the word. To say that one person is "under" another means that he is subordinate or junior.

So an "understudy" is one who "studies under" another. In acting, the idea is that the junior actor is supposed to be learning from the senior actor, either by direct instruction or at least by example.

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    So, according to what you have posted, the two actors study the same role more or less at the same time, so that the "junior" actor may learn from the more experienced one. I thought that the two people worked independently of one another, and that a less important actor may be called in to replace the more important one without their having ever been together before. – Paola May 10 '12 at 19:43
  • I'll readily yield to anyone with more knowledge of the acting business, but yes, my understanding is that the understudy studies the same role as the senior actor, and is available to fill in in case of illness, etc. I think this mainly applies to live theater as opposed to TV or movies, where they'd probably just reschedule the shooting. An understudy may have a minor role in addition to being available to substitute -- the kind of role that is listed on the credits as "third man in restaurant". – Jay May 11 '12 at 14:43

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