Cast (meanings)

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For an explanation of a common spelling, or typing, error, see cast - caste.

The word Cast can be a verb (see Cast (irregular verb) for its forms), noun or adjective and OED lists 14 main branches of meaning (with 41 separate uses) as a noun, 13 as a verb and 10 meanings as the related participial adjective. This page will outline as briefly as possible the meanings of cast: for more, see a good Dictionary, preferably OED for completeness. Because the noun, verb and adjective are all closely related, this page does not discriminate between the grammatical categories.

The basic meaning is 'to throw'.

  • This can be seen in such phrases as the archaic measure of distance, 'a spear's cast'; at sea, 'a cast of the lead' is a single dropping of the leadline to establish depth; the old practice of scattering corn seed by hand has given us the idea of broadcasting, literally in agriculture and metaphorically in communications. The idea develops in certain directions. Rough-cast, or 'pebbledash', is a way of finishing walls by throwing shovel-fulls of gravel or similar stones mixed with mortar or other adhesive substance. Any body in bright sunlight will 'cast a shadow'. More figuratively, one can 'cast an eye over' someone, or 'take a look'; witches (and attractive people) can cast a spell, or 'enchant'. The phrase 'to cast one's bread upon the waters', which is taken from the Bible, "Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days" (Ecclesiastes 11:1), means figuratively 'to be generous [for you will be rewarded for virtue]' (literally 'to throw away your substance randomly').
    • Some specialized uses of throwing include: anglers cast their baits (and an artificial fly on a length of fine line is a cast); horses cast their shoes (lose them); there is a proverb "Ne'er cast a clout/Ere May be out", meaning 'don't take off [a layer of winter] clothing until the end of May' (rather than 'until the may tree blossoms'). Sailors can also cast anchor; modern vessels are more likely to 'drop anchor', not least because the weights are so great that the action of throwing an anchor is unthinkable, except in a small boat. Sometimes it is less violent than the usual idea of throwing, as in 'casting votes', which merely involves placing one's ballot paper in a box.
    • 'Throwing down' can include an idea of something that has been thrown lying as it it falls. In this sense, there are phrases like the cast of his features, or the cast of her face, meaning 'the way he or she looks', 'the way the parts of his or her face have come together'. A sky that is overcast is one that is strewn with clouds; one where the sun cannot be seen.
  • An idea of 'throwing down' or 'defeating', commoner in Early Modern English than now, for example in the 1611 translation of the Bible, where various Jewish heroes cast down the altars of 'false gods', the Lord (God) casts down the mighty and 'lifts up' the humble and poor, and, in a more literal sense, Judas cast down his pieces of silver, before he hanged himself;
  • An idea of discarding. Cast-offs are second-hand, or rejected, clothes; snakes, crabs and other animals cast their skins or shells in order to grow (also 'slough [off]'); a wormcast is the earth deposited on the surface by a worm burrowing; a castaway is someone who has been discarded, most often as a result of shipwreck; an outcast is someone rejected from a social institution, such as a family, church, tribe or class. (Although it is obviously possible to link the two meanings of cast and caste in this sense, it is a mistake to write outcaste - unless you are clear that you are writing about Indian society.)
    • This runs into an idea of 'throwing up earth with a spade, etc', in such uses as 'casting up spoil from a ditch [onto the bank]', and the older practice of 'casting up a mound [for a castle, or similar]'. An opencast mine is one in which the desired ore is found by stripping off the layer of rock or soil above it, and 'casting' this 'spoil' to one side.
  • An idea of chance, or luck. This refers to the practice of choosing people by chance, by 'drawing lots [out of a pot]' or 'casting lots [out of the receptacle]'. The image can be seen in the phrase 'The lot fell upon him', to mean 'he was randomly selected'. One can 'risk all on the cast of a die', (~'throw of a dice') (Julius Caesar said, as he crossed the Rubicon in 49 BCE, effectively beginning the Civil War, "the die is cast", or "alea iacta est" in Latin).
  • An idea of calculating, as in the standard phrase in Early Modern English for adding up a column of figures to cast up accounts. Astrologers used to calculate a person's future by casting his horoscope, and this was extended to the notion of a doctor diagnosing a patient's illness by casting his water, or inspecting his urine. In general, we now forecast the weather, or the future, the stock market or any event whose development we think we can calculate.
  • Sometimes the central idea becomes not casually throwing, but deliberately arranging in order. Nowadays this is mostly in the area of drama: to cast a play is to allot the parts to particular actors. (Some of them may think that this is more a matter of chance, or of some more sinister motive: the myth of the 'casting couch' is widely believed, that is that many women actors are given parts because they have given sexual favours to the (male) directors). The adjective typecast is applied to actors who always play one particular sort of part - the ingenuous young woman, the characteristic villain - types known as 'the ingénue' and 'the heavy' - or the retired, absent-minded and doddery old man.
  • In materials such as wax, hot metal, modern plastics and plaster of Paris, to cast is 'to pour the raw material in a liquid form into a mould where it hardens into a three-dimensional form, often a copy of an original'. In one of its simplest forms, this results in bars of cast-iron, and in an earlier state of technology, die-cast models were the most desirable of metal model toys. Sculptures are often made as cast bronze; and ancient statues and architectural detail may be copied, for students, in plaster of Paris as plaster-casts (the V & A museum in London has rooms full of casts). Medically, a plaster-cast (locally, in Hull, a 'pot') is applied to a broken limb to hold it immobile and thus heal.