Originally a stereotype was an impression taken from a form of movable lead type and used for printing instead of the original type. This was generalized into a metaphor for repeating a set of ideas identically with no changes (as would have been possible in a form of movable type).

In modern usage, the metaphorical meaning predominates. The term is generally used to describe an oversimplified mental picture of some group of people who are sharing a certain characteristic (or stereotypical) qualities. The term is thus often used in a negative sense, with stereotypes being seen by many as illogical yet deeply held-beliefs that can only be changed through education.

In computing, the negative connotation does not apply; stereotype is also a concept in the Unified Modeling Language, where it is used to encapsulate behaviors. Thus, a stereotype is used as a vehicle for communicating software requirements and designs.

Common stereotypes of the past included a variety of allegations about various racial groups (see: racial stereotype and racial profiling) and predictions of behavior based on social status and wealth (See social stereotype).

In literature and art, stereotypes are clichéd or predictable characters or situations. For example, the stereotypical devil is a red, impish character with horns and a pitchfork.

Common stereotypical characters

  • The "hard-boiled" or tough private eye
  • The aging absent-minded professor (sometimes speaking incoherently)
  • The ditzy busty blonde woman ("dumb blonde")
  • The dowdy librarian (who becomes instantly attractive when she takes her glasses off)
  • The degenerate aristocrat with top hat, tuxedo, and monocle
  • The snobbish butler (speaking with a British English or other European accent)
  • The nerdy scientist (with black wiry-framed glasses, black bowtie, white coat, speaking in technobabble)
    • Similar: The short genius schoolkid, who wears glasses and uniform ("geek" or "dork")
  • The primly dressed schoolmarm with her pointer and "Now, class" address
  • The peg-legged pirate with an eye patch and parrot
  • The overweight, doughnut-eating cop who believes skateboarding is a crime
  • The prostitute with a heart of gold
  • The brightly colored court jester
  • The villain with black clothes, moustache like two needles and generalized Central or Eastern European accent
  • The jolly Middle Eastern or South Asian cornershop owner with his collection of trinkets
  • The picky chef with his toque and piquant French accent
  • The overdelivering game show host with his giant smile
  • The confrontational gangster in his pinstripe suit from Armani or Versace, who hides his gun in a violin case
  • The tobacco-spitting baseball player
  • The effeminate homosexual male
  • The butch lesbian
  • The old lady who sits on the porch, reminiscing and knitting

See also: archetype, stock character, counterstereotype (antonym)