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impression vs. impersonation

Impression or impersonation? I do not understand how “impression” has come to mean “imitation” as in “This is my impression of Marlon Brando.” “Impersonation” seems to be the better choice in this situation, but it seems that these two words are used interchangeably. I understand how “impression” can refer to the process of duplication in situations like taking an impression of one’s credit card, but I wonder if “impression” is misused as substitute for “impersonation” in other cases. Any thoughts?

  • October 27, 2006
  • Posted by cameron
  • Filed in Usage

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Todd, Kelly's bird would be using onomatopoeia if the bird actually says "Sqeeeaak" or "riinnggg!" not if he actually makes a squeaking or ringing noise.

Tony Faldo September 18, 2013, 3:54pm

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I think I can actually answer this. I am a vocal "Impressionist" vs. an "Impersonator". Impression means to take on only a single aspect of the original while Impersonation means to replicate the original in its entirety. In entertainment, Rich Little would be an "Impressionist". Shawn Klush would be an Elvis "Impersonator", etc.

BR1 April 21, 2012, 3:32pm

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Kelly your bird is using onomatopoeia! LOL

Todd May 8, 2011, 3:09pm

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I have a question. What term is proper when the impersonation does not involve a person? I have a bird that repeats sounds of other animals and inanimate objects around the house (squeaky door, telephone ringer, etc.) Would the word "imitation" be better to use than "impersonation"?

kelly July 26, 2007, 10:35am

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Looking at the OED, impression has always had the sense (since the late 1300s at least) of an imprint (such as an impression made in wax), and thus of a copy. That is precisely the Latin etymology. However, the word has also been used to describe the effect of something on the mind, which has come down to us in examples like "It gave me the impression that...", and "he made a good first impression". This, of course, comes from the idea that the thing or person is making a stamped image on the mind, which is a common trope in conceptions of consciousness (e.g. sense impressions).

Incidentally, the first usage of impression as a performance is listed as 1953. Interestingly, it is in scare quotes, but whether the OED has missed earlier usage I don't know.

Impersonation appears in 1825, and derives from an older sense which literally means to personify or render into a personality: thus, a soul is said to be "impersonated" when it is incarnated into a body (1633), or vices and passions are said to be "impersonated" when they are represented as human figures in literature (1790s). From the latter sense, it is an easy step to one person dramatically representing another, although when the faint air of deceit or counterfeit, as emphasised by Nah, Lance and John, began to cling to the word is unclear.

Chris November 23, 2006, 12:49am

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I'd only add that while an impression is generally done by an actor, comedian or someone trying to entertain, an impersonation includes quite illegal situations, to wit, the cop scenario. It's obviously illegal to impersonate an official. It's only humiliating if someone impersonates a moron, like Borat does. But it could do real damage if someone was to impersonate a cop with you. I wonder how they handle this in the Punk'd tv show. I assume they do the impersonations, both of official and non-official people, and then get the punkee to sign a release in order to televise.

John November 18, 2006, 2:02pm

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I think that the difference lies in the intent of the actor: an impression is a behavioral caricature, intended for entertainment and not to be believed, while an impersonation is intended to be accepted at face value. As similar distinction lies between a tall tale with a lie.

Does anyone know of a reference book that would contrast between pairs of related words such as these?

Lance ==)---------- November 17, 2006, 9:24am

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Nah has it pretty much right. An impression, is just that, the impression that you get from a person, and your interpretation thereof. It generally is just a bit of the person's unique personality or mannerism, played for comedic weight.

An impersonation of someone, however, is trying to <b>be</b> that person, mimicking as much of their personality as possible.

To go with Nah's cop ...

An impression of a cop would be sauntering around with a puffed out chest, putting people under arrest and confiscating their donuts.

An impersonation of a cop would be dressing as a cop and writing traffic tickets.

jeffrey October 30, 2006, 6:17am

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Nothing new here. When did the "impressionist" movement in art come about? How did Monet come up with the name for his painting 'Impression Sunrise'?

Impersonate is more akin to "counterfeiting someone. So to do an impression of a police officer one doesn't have to wear an officer's uniform or have a baton at hand. Yet, to impersonate an officer one would be advised to have good replicas or genuine articles to pull of an impersonation.

My understanding on it.

Nah October 28, 2006, 10:46am

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