It is a strange word, as one student pointed out. He had come across it twice in a day, with quite different meanings.

He had been reading Hamlet, and in Act I Scene 3 saw the advice of Polonius to his son Laertes, who was setting off for France:

‘… There, my blessing with thee.
And these few precepts in thy memory
Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportion’d thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar…’

It is a verb here, and Shakespeare is stressing the second syllable: charácter. He is using it to mean engrave, which comes close to the original meaning of the Greek word. The origin is the verb χαράσσω (charasso), which signifies physically to sharpen, to cut in grooves or to engrave.  Later we get χαρακτήρ, meaning an engraver, or occasionally the tool for doing it. This noun then somehow comes to be used metaphorically, to denote the distinguishing nature  of a person or thing.

Later the student had read the description of a certain secret agent during World War II, whose activities had been of value to the British: a man of talent, speaking over half a dozen languages and able to go anywhere—but also a rogue and a womanizer. He was described as ‘a man of personality rather than a man of character.’

Here the word is an evaluative abstract, denoting perhaps some combination of courage, openness and integrity.

The OED entry has an assortment of meanings and nuances, which the following quotations may serve to illustrate:

  • There were no talismanic characters engraven on the portal.
  • Signed with the character of Christ in baptisme.
  • The Chinese characters or written words are symbols of ideas.
  • Many of the priests… use Arabic instead, but Arabic written in Syriac characters.
  • Until the fifteenth century, there were several variations of the musical characters.
  • This code is a sub-set of the ASCII code, comprising some 50 characters.
  • The sum of the diagonal elements of a matrix is called the trace… In group theory it is known as the character.
  • The character of the streets changed. They grew narrower and were cobbled.
  • How many houses now have character?
  • Thorough selfishness formed the basis of Henry’s character.
  • The British character, with its emphasis on ‘making do’ and ‘keeping a stiff upper lip’.
  • The man previously appointed was without character and wholly unqualified.
  • Ask for a character before engaging a new servant.
  • The character of Ophelia can be misunderstood.
  • A cheerful, cocky, Walter Mitty character.
  • A very impudent fellow this! but he’s a character, and I’ll humour him.
  • She bought this from some character at the door.

French originally gave us the word in its more basic meanings, and then, over the last couple of centuries, has borrowed back most of the above nuances. Italian, having less interchange with English, has tended to keep its original words, like scritturaindole, temperamento, specie, natura, tipo, segno, personaggio, fama.