sneak preview

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jan 27 09:06:51 UTC 2010

I don't have any references on hand (not even an OED) and this is not a
particularly scholarly endeavor because of it, but I was curious when
"sneak preview" entered the lexicon. Does OED have an entry? Is there a
possible theatre usage that predates film? [It so much easier when
someone else originates a query by looking in the OED first!]

Furthermore, there should be multiple entries--again, I don't know what
the OED entry has, if anything. But online dictionaries all have fairly
similar and singular entries.

> *test screening:* a public screening of a movie prior to its general
> release, in order to test public reaction to it

> Date: circa 1937 : a special advance showing of a motion picture
> usually announced but not named

Infoplease (=RH Unabridged, 1997):
> a preview of a motion picture, often shown in addition to an announced
> film, in order to observe the reaction of the audience. (=RH Unabridged, 2010):
> a preview of a motion picture, often shown in addition to an announced
> film, in order to observe the reaction of the audience.
> Origin:
> 1935–40 (=AHD4):
> A single public showing of a movie before its general release.

AHDIdioms is more clear (1997):
> An advance showing of something, as in /It was supposed to be bad luck
> but she gave the bridegroom a sneak preview of her wedding gown./ This
> expression originated in the 1930s for a single public showing of a
> motion picture before its general release, and in succeeding decades
> was transferred to other undertakings.

So there is a rather obvious top entry--originally, unannounced
screening of a film (often a rough cut) to gauge audience response and
to identify scenes to cut. Later applied to *all* pre-release
screenings--announced or not--and sometimes irrespectively of the status
of the film version.

The second entry should be for *any* other pre-release exposure to some
sort of materials--it could be an advanced copy of a book, a screening
of a TV show that may yet find a network, a fashion collection yet to be
released to the general public, a "pre-Broadway" theatre production, etc.

One thing this does *not* apply to in professional literature, but is
occasionally labeled as such in the related media, is alpha and beta
releases of software. More specifically, some reviewers may have access
to the full program in a pre-release version (mostly beta), but they
only offer a rundown of features that they may describe as a sneak
preview. But this may be a part of the third entry--an advance preview
of partial features of a product or a line of products. This is
particularly notorious usage in TV promotion/marketing--some networks
offer full episodes of forthcoming shows (usually from the next season),
while others show only snippets and isolated scenes in advance of an
already announced release. This is considerably different from the other
usage which indicates that the product is *not announced* in context.
The whole point of this kind of sneak preview is to get audience
interested in what has already been scheduled/announced. Particularly
pervasive usage of this type is in showing a one-minute montage of a
forthcoming episode (or a forthcoming season if it's the cliffhanger) at
the end of a just-viewed episode. Finally, similar usage exists for
"production" documentaries of the "making of" type for first-release
films (or, occasionally, TV series) that is a stand-alone feature (e.g.,
making of Avatar, making of Battlestar Galactica)

The fourth entry is colloquially suggested by the use of "sneak preview"
as a cursory look at available material, e.g., "I got a sneak preview of
a book by skipping to the final chapter." Unlike the specialized
marketing origin and use of the other entries, this one is personal,
i.e., colloquial, not jargon-y. I am sure people will disagree with my
categorization (and, of course, the entries would have to be much more
compact to be useful).

I have done *no* research on antedating the latter three definitions,
although I did spot one for #2 in 1934 as a part of my search for the
original term antedating. As I said, I don't know what OED has for the
quotes, but I improved on definitions cited above--the earliest
periodical I found is from 1932, while the earliest non-periodical entry
may be either from 1935 or 1937.

More on that shortly.


The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list