Bit part is an idiomatic phrase used to denote someone who has a small role to play. This usually refers to an actor in a play, television show or movie. It is also used to refer to someone who had a small part in a project or to a sportsman or woman who made a small contribution to the team. In some cases, the term is used to denigrate someone or is used by the bit part player in order to complain about his or her relatively small role.
Idioms such as “bit part” and “kick the bucket” are non-literal phrases. Native language speakers often understand idioms when second language learners do not. This is because idioms are often culturally specific, and learners lack the contextual awareness to understand them.
The term, “bit part” comes from Old English and proto-Germanic. A bit refers to two things: a drill piece that makes holes and the small bits such a drill or implement create. Over time, the small parts created came to be known as bit parts, and this collocation was attributed to other areas such as actors with minor roles.
There are various types of bit part roles and actors. Some actors are able to make a career out of such roles, while others do it as a hobby or as a means of funding college or to get themselves noticed for larger roles. Bit part actors are sometimes called Under Sixes, meaning they have fewer than six lines; other supporting actors may have more lines, but would still not be considered a main actor or character.
Supporting actors often have more than six lines. Such bit parts are more important than extras, but are far less important than the major characters. They can still make a big impression as a major character. Some important minor characters include Pete Hornberger from “30 Rock” and Tariq Masood in “Spooks.”
Cameos and extras are also different than bit parts. A cameo is a guest appearance, often a small part played by a famous actor or celebrity. Examples of cameos include Peter Jackson playing Santa in “Hot Fuzz.” An extra has a non-speaking background and in no way affects the story.
Such bit part actors often hope to secure better parts in other shows, films and plays or hope their character will be promoted to the rank of a major character. The term “bit part” is often used in this context as a form of complaint. Some supporting characters do gather an online following, with viewers wanting to know more about them. This is most true of television shows that have the opportunity to grow and develop over time.
In sport, bit part players, in soccer, for example, tend to be bench warmers. They spend a lot of time on the sidelines watching games and playing a small role as a substitute. When such players ask to leave the team, they tend to express their frustration at being a “bit part player.”