[Ads-l] Slight But Important Antedating of Term "Oscar"

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jun 6 15:08:13 EDT 2018

Barry Popik has also suggested that the "Oscar" for "oscillations" usage
might have played a role. See his latest entry on this, which cites the
1931 Motion Picture Almanac:


Earliest I've found for this usage is from 1929:

Los Angeles Times, Nov. 24, 1929, p. III-26, col. 6
"Screen Gets a New Language" (continuation of "Talkies Give New Tongue"
from p. III-13)
Oscar -- Term for "electrical oscillations."


On Wed, Jun 6, 2018 at 3:02 PM, ADSGarson O'Toole <adsgarsonotoole at gmail.com
> wrote:

> Why is the Academy Award statuette named "Oscar"? Here is one possible
> explanation.
> Recording engineers employed dummies with microphone ears to perform
> tests. I've found two citations showing that the dummy was nicknamed
> "Oscar". This makes sense because another citation shows that a
> glossary from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences listed
> "Oscar" as slang for oscillations.
> I hypothesize that movie recording engineers and other technicians
> started to refer to the award statuettes as Oscars. The name was based
> on the similarity between the non-descript figure on the award and the
> dummies used by recording engineers. Admittedly, the current evidence
> is weak. I offer this suggestion as an entertaining alternative
> explanation pending the collection of further evidence.
> Even if this hypothesis is rejected the citations below are pertinent.
> The first shows that "Oscar" was employed as slang in the movie-making
> community in 1931 (with a different meaning). The second two citations
> show "Oscar" referring to a dummy figure in 1932 and 1933.
> Date: January 2, 1931
> Newspaper: The Helena Independent
> Newspaper Location: Helena, Montana
> Article: Language of Its Own Growing Up in Movie World
> Author:  Robin Coons (Associated Press)
> Quote Page 2, Column 5
> Database: Newspapers.com
> [Begin excerpt]
> . . . if you linger around a busy talkie set in a studio here you'll
> certainly hear exclamations . . .  all now officially sanctioned by
> the dignified Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, through its
> technical bureau which today issued a "selected glossary for the
> motion picture technician."
> . . .
> Canaries -- Unidentified, high frequency noises in the recording system.
> . . .
> Dynamite -- An open connection box into which the studio lamps are
> plugged--dangerous if stepped on.
> . . .
> Gaffer--Electrician in charge of a group of electrical workers.
> . . .
> Oscar--Slang for oscillations.
> [End excerpt]
> Date: March 17, 1932
> Newspaper: The Daily Inter Lake
> Newspaper Location: Kalispell, Montana
> Article: Dummy Is Critic at Orchestra Rehearsal
> Quote Page 8, Column 4
> Database: Newspapers.com
> [Begin excerpt]
> A wax Dummy serves as critic during the orchestra rehearsals of
> Leopold Stokowski, famous conductor. Named "Oscar," it sits through a
> performance at the Philadelphia Academy of Music with an impassive
> expression on its molded face. But its ears never miss a note, says
> Popular Science Monthly, for they are twin microphones connected to an
> amplifying system and earphones. By listening in engineers can
> determine the best arrangement of the orchestra for radio broadcasting
> and decide in advance how the received program will sound.
> [End excerpt]
> Date: September 14, 1933
> Newspaper: Erie County Independent
> Newspaper Location: Hamburg, New York
> Article: Many New Marvels of Science Shown At Century of Progress
> Exposition
> Quote Page 5, Column 4
> Database: Newspapers.com
> [Begin excerpt]
> An apparatus known as the oscilloscope, used extensively by telephone
> scientists in their study of speech, enables one to see "pictures" of
> the words he speaks into a telephone transmitter. Another feature, a
> mechanical figure which his creators have named "Oscar, the Man with
> the Microphone Ears," shows how sensitive and powerful the modern
> microphone can be. By the use of head-receivers, visitors seated
> outside "Oscar's" glass room can hear everything the dummy hears,
> including voices in the room, flies buzzing about, and even soft
> footfalls on thick carpets.
> [End excerpt]
> Garson O'Toole
> On Wed, Jun 6, 2018 at 12:44 PM, ADSGarson O'Toole
> <adsgarsonotoole at gmail.com> wrote:
> > Great discovery, Fred. The citation you found does cast doubt on
> > Sidney Skolsky's claim that he coined the term "Oscar" as a name for
> > the Academy Award statuette.
> >
> > Nevertheless, I do not think Skolsky's claim can be definitively
> > denied based on this new evidence. Pretending that a new coinage is
> > already popular is a strategy for increasing the probability that the
> > new coinage will succeed. When Skolsky wrote "To the profession these
> > statues are called Oscars" he may have been deliberately deceiving his
> > readers. He was pretending that "Oscar" was already in use when he was
> > really attempting to introduce and popularize the term.
> >
> > It is possible that Skolsky's goal was to deflate the
> > self-congratulatory award ceremony, and to gently mock the Hollywood
> > luminaries. There is some support for this contention within the
> > article. Skolsky uses the phrase "little Oscar" twice to minimize its
> > perceived value. Also, when describing Oscar winner Laughton Skolsky's
> > says he "started as a kitchen clerk in the Claridge Hotel". Skolsky
> > was employing class bias to undercut Laughton's achievement.
> >
> > I am only writing this to suggest that the hypothesis that Skolsky
> > coined "Oscar" should be retained when future word origin specialists
> > compose comprehensive analyses of the origin of the term.
> >
> > I will present a different speculation about "Oscar" in a future message.
> >
> > Garson O'Toole
> >

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