c. 1600, "part or character one takes," from French rôle "part played by a person in life," literally "roll" (of paper) on which an actor's part is written, from Old French rolle (see roll (n.)). Not originally in English with direct reference to actors and the stage, but figurative of them. The meaning "any conspicuous function performed characteristically by someone" is by 1875. In the social psychology sense is from 1913. Role model, one taken by others as a model in performance of some role, is attested by 1957.