What is a Supernumerary?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A supernumerary is simply an extra person. The term is used in a wide range of fields, from theater to the judicial system. A supernumerary is typically brought on to a project to supplement the efforts of the regular staff. In this capacity, the supernumerary might help a company cope with a product launch, or he or she might be kept in reserve to fill in for someone who is sick or otherwise out of commission. In general, supernumeraries are fully trained and capable of performing a wide range of tasks, and they generally live ordinary outside lives.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

One of the oldest uses of supernumeraries is in theater, where trained actors would be brought on stage to fill out crowd scenes. Often the members of a crowd go uncredited, but they are still important people in the cast because they flesh out the look of the set to make a crowd more believable. Supernumeraries are sometimes known as “extras,” and many actors get their start working as extras until they find more extensive roles.

In business, a supernumerary can be kept in reserve to assist a company when it has a lot of work, or to fill in for someone else. This personal may be a former employee or a freelance agent who is willing to work as an additional employee when needed. Many retailers have a need for supernumeraries during the holiday season, when there tends to be a need for service above and beyond the usual. A supernumerary judge or official can be very useful, since the supernumerary ensures that the process of government is not interrupted by illness or other factors.

Organizations also have supernumeraries, who are non-regular members that are familiar with the workings of the organization, even if they do not attend meetings on a regular basis. Some public figures are honored with supernumerary positions in various organizations, in recognition for their contributions to society. A supernumerary can also be called upon when an organization needs all members to be available.

Some religious orders also have supernumeraries. These individuals are committed to the goals and ethics of the order, but they do not live in the order's residential facilities or steep themselves in the life of the order. These individuals live regular lives with the understanding that they are available to assist when needed, and the expectation that they live their lives in a way which conforms with the ideals of the order to which they belong.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Esther11 - I agree with you that our language has too many words with similar meanings. I think the term "extras" works well for theater and movies. And the term "temp or temporary worker" should be used to refer to retail and general office workers.

The label "supernumerary" should be used only for workers who are tied to a company and have the knowledge and ability to step into a higher position when needed. This could be in corporations, religious organizations, or political situations. Former employees and retirees would be likely to want these kind of occasional jobs.


I'm not at all familiar with the term "supernumerary." I always called those who made themselves available for crowd scenes in movies or plays as "extras."

When extra personnel are needed in retail, especially during holiday seasons, I referred to them as "temps." And in business, when a company needed extra people, they were called temporary workers.

At times, I think that there are too many words in the English language that have similar meanings. It gets confusing.

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