The adjective protean (pronounced pro-ti-ǝn) means “readily assuming different forms or characters; extremely variable,” or “changeable in shape or form, as an amoeba,” according to www.dictionary.com. It can also mean “versatile” when applied to an actor, or it can mean “related to Proteus.” That last definition makes a lot of sense because the word comes from the name of the Greek god Proteus. Proteus was possibly, in Green myth, the oldest son of Poseidon, the god of the sea. Proteus was a god of the sea or of other bodies of waters, like rivers. According to Brittanica.com, “Proteus knew all things—past, present, and future—but disliked divulging what he knew. Those who wished to consult him had first to surprise and bind him during his noonday slumber. Even when caught he would try to escape by assuming all sorts of shapes. But if his captor held him fast, the god at last returned to his proper shape, gave the wished-for answer, and plunged into the sea.” So this shape-shifting god gives us the adjective, which comes into the language in the 1590s, according to www.etymonline.com.
Protean sounds like it could be a good thing, and when we use it in the third sense, about an actor, it is a good thing. I can think of a number of protean actors—Lawrence Olivier, Meryl Streep, Ian McKellan, Derek Jacobi, and others—as well as actors who are not versatile—John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Tom Cruise, and other actors who pretty much play themselves in everything they do. And the second sense probably isn’t a bad thing when used about an amoeba. But I’m not sure calling a person protean because he or she is “extremely variable” is a compliment.
One example of a protean character, whose birthday comes up later this month, is Theodore Robert Cowell. He was a handsome man, very persuasive, very amiable. As a young man he worked for the Rockefeller campaign in 1968, even attending the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach (Nixon won the nomination). He attended several different colleges, and even began law school, though he never finished. He dated a woman in college, but she broke up with him because she thought he was immature and lacked ambition. But several years later, he reconnected with her, courted her again, and even talked marriage.
He talked about marriage until one day he just cut off all contact with her, that is. Apparently, he set up the whole romance just so that he could dump her, probably in retaliation for her dumping her several years earlier.
He would approach young women in public places, feigning and injury or a need, and convince them that he needed their help. In one instance, he wore a sling on his arm while at a state park, and asked attractive young women to help him unload a sailboat from his 1968 Volkswagen Beetle. While several of them refused him, one said yes. Another young woman at the park left her group to find a restroom. Neither of those women survived.
You see, this very nice, handsome, and amiable young man went by a different name, Ted Bundy. He killed women. He killed a lot of women. He confessed to 30 or so murders, and may have committed many more. He may even have started his killing as a 14-year-old boy, though he denied killing 8-year-old Ann Marie Burr of Tacoma, WA. He was also very smart, even so far as defending himself in his various trials. He was also a control freak, which is also why he defended himself in his various trials. And he was so attractive that he even married a young divorcee, Carole Ann Boone, and they had a child together, though they did divorce three years before his execution in 1989.
It is surprising and even shocking that people could have been fooled by “the most cold-hearted son of a ***** you’ll ever meet,” as he described himself. Yet they were because of he was protean, a shape shifter. And he’s not the only one. Many people can appear to be different things to different people, performing as this or that in order to fool others into trusting them. And not all of these protean people are serial killers. Many of them are politicians, salesmen, and even college administrators.
And many of these protean people never get caught, the way Ted Bundy was caught. When you try to pin them down, they shape shift and slip away.