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

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jun 6 19:02:34 UTC 2018

Why is the Academy Award statuette named "Oscar"? Here is one possible

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
> On Mon, Jun 4, 2018 at 4:16 PM, Peter Reitan <pjreitan at hotmail.com> wrote:
>> I have a completely plausible, yet unproven, suggestion.
>> An orchestra conductor named Oscar Baum played in Los Angeles movie houses, including Grauman's Paramount, Grauman's Chinese, Warner Brothers and El Capitan throughout the 1930s and 1940s.  He started as a violinist and later orchestra leader in Minneapolis, before conducting at Paramount theaters in Brooklyn and New York City during 1930.  His Los Angeles debut took place at the Paramount in December 1931.  He later moved to Grauman's Chinese in January 1932 and switched teams to Warner Brothers in 1934.  He was still conducting at theaters in LA (El Capitan) in 1947.  Presumably he was a constant presence in Hollywood throughout the intervening years.
>> Theaters at the time frequently had orchestra performances before and between shows.  For example, he conducted music for a modern ballet prologue before films at the Paramount during 1931.
>> There is an undated photograph of Oscar Baum conducting Grauman's Chinese orchestra on Grauman's Theater's website<http://www.graumanschinese.org/tour-1927.html>.  It shows him holding an abnormally long baton downward along his leg - reminscent, perhaps, of the sword held by Oscar?  His other hand is up, pointing towards the orchestra, but I can imagine that if he stood erect up front, holding his very long baton downward (as many conductors are prone to do in facing the audience) that he could have looked like an Oscar statuette.
>> Haven't found any other full-length images of Baum, or any specific association between him and Academy Awards presentations, but as a well-known, very visible Hollywood figure during the time the expression evolved, it seems like a possibility.
>> Or not.  But I think it's an interesting coincidence.
>> ________________________________
>> From: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU> on behalf of Ben Zimmer <bgzimmer at GMAIL.COM>
>> Sent: Monday, June 4, 2018 12:32 PM
>> Subject: Re: Slight But Important Antedating of Term "Oscar"
>> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
>> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>> Poster:       Ben Zimmer <bgzimmer at GMAIL.COM>
>> Subject:      Re: Slight But Important Antedating of Term "Oscar"
>> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
>> Barry Popik has concluded that "Oscar" referred to a canned joke involving
>> theater impresario Oscar Hammerstein (grandfather of the lyricist).
>> ---
>> https://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/oscar_academy_awar=
>> d/
>> In his book "Don=E2=80=99t Get Me Wrong -- I Love Hollywood" (1975), Skolsk=
>> y wrote:
>> "I needed the magic name fast. But fast! I remembered the vaudeville shows
>> I=E2=80=99d seen. The comedians having fun with the orchestra leader in the=
>>  pit
>> would say, 'Will you have a cigar, Oscar?' The orchestra leader reached for
>> it; the comedians backed away, making a comical remark. The audience
>> laughed at Oscar. I started hitting the keys. 'Katharine Hepburn won the
>> Oscar for her performance as Eva Lovelace in Morning Glory, her third
>> Hollywood film.' I felt better. I was having fun. I filed and forgot."
>> Oscar Hammerstein I (1847-1919) was a theater impresario in New York City;
>> the Hammerstein Ballroom on West 34th Street was the location of his
>> Manhattan Opera House. Hammerstein (the grandfather of lyricist Oscar
>> Hammerstein II) was also a cigar manufacturer who founded the U.S. Tobacco
>> Journal. The vaudeville line =E2=80=9CHave a cigar?=E2=80=9D that Skolsky r=
>> emembered was in
>> imitation of Oscar Hammerstein.
>> ---
>> ...but if this new evidence suggests Skolsky wasn't in fact the originator,
>> then I don't know where that leaves us.
>> On Mon, Jun 4, 2018 at 3:05 PM, Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at yale.edu>
>> wrote:
>>> Is there any new intelligence on the etymology?  The OED has:
>>> =3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D
>>> Origin: Of uncertain origin. Perhaps from a proper name. Etymon: proper
>>> name Oscar.
>>> Etymology: Origin uncertain; perhaps < the name of Oscar Pierce,
>>> 20th-cent. U.S. wheat and fruit grower (see note).
>>> In 1931 Margaret Herrick, librarian (and later executive director) of the
>>> Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is said to have remarked that
>>> the statuette reminded her of her =E2=80=98Uncle Oscar=E2=80=99, the name=
>>  by which she
>>> called her cousin Oscar Pierce.
>>> The name was first used officially by the Academy in 1939.
>>> =3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D
>>> LH
>>> > On Jun 4, 2018, at 2:45 PM, Mark Mandel <mark.a.mandel at GMAIL.COM> wrote=
>> :
>>> >
>>> > Good catch!
>>> >
>>> > On Mon, Jun 4, 2018, 10:13 AM Shapiro, Fred <fred.shapiro at yale.edu>
>>> wrote:
>>> >
>>> >> I have found a slight but important antedating of the term "Oscar"
>>> >> denoting the motion picture Academy Award.
>>> >>
>>> >>
>>> >> It should be clearly understood that Barry Popik is the person who
>>> tracked
>>> >> down usage by Sidney Skolsky of "Oscar" in the New York Daily News,
>>> March
>>> >> 19, 1934, and pointed out that Skolsky's association with the term in
>>> 1934
>>> >> should supplant unsubstantiated popular theories that Margaret Herrick
>>> or
>>> >> Bette Davis originated "Oscar."  The Oxford English Dictionary's first
>>> >> citation is the March 19 occurrence found by Popik.  Popik has unearth=
>> ed
>>> >> more important factual information about very important Americanisms
>>> than
>>> >> anyone else ever has, and "Oscar" is one of his best discoveries.
>>> >>
>>> >>
>>> >> Popik also recently pointed out that the New York Daily News has now
>>> been
>>> >> digitized by newspapers.com.  In searching newspapers.com today I
>>> >> retrieved the following two-day antedating of "Oscar":
>>> >>
>>> >>
>>> >> *****
>>> >>
>>> >>
>>> >> 1934 Sidney Skolsky in _New York Daily News_ 17 Mar. 3/2  The Academy =
>> of
>>> >> Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made its annual awards for the
>>> outstanding
>>> >> achievements in the motion picture field at their banquet in the
>>> Ambassador
>>> >> Hotel this evening.  These awards mean to Hollywood what the Pulitzer
>>> prize
>>> >> means to the dramatists and novelists.  It is the picture people's mai=
>> n
>>> >> incentive to strive for an "artistic achievement" in an industry where
>>> >> their worth is judged by box office figures.  At tonight's banquet the
>>> >> winners, while movieland looked on and applauded, were presented with
>>> >> bronze statues.  To the profession these statues are called Oscars. ..=
>> .
>>> >> Here are a few winners who now have a little Oscar in their home. ...
>>> The
>>> >> Oscar for the best production of the year went to Fox for "Cavalcade."
>>> ...
>>> >> Laughton, who started as a kitchen clerk in the Claridge Hotel in
>>> London,
>>> >> also was not present to receive his little Oscar. ... The Oscar for th=
>> e
>>> >> best direction went to Frank Lloyd for "Cavalcade."  Sarah Y. Mason an=
>> d
>>> >> Victor Heerman will take turns on the Oscar for their adaptation on
>>> "Little
>>> >> Women."
>>> >>
>>> >>
>>> >> *****
>>> >>
>>> >>
>>> >> The primary significance of the citation above is not the two-day
>>> >> improvement in the earliest known occurrence of "Oscar."  The primary
>>> >> significance is that Skolsky, who later claimed to have coined "Oscar,=
>> "
>>> in
>>> >> this March 17, 1934 column states that "To the profession these statue=
>> s
>>> are
>>> >> called Oscars" (establishing that the term was used before March 17) a=
>> nd
>>> >> does not in any way present the term as his own coinage.  As a result,
>>> the
>>> >> March 17 citation greatly undermines the idea that Skolsky was the
>>> >> originator.
>>> >>
>>> >>
>>> >> Fred Shapiro
>>> >>
>>> >> Editor
>>> >>
>>> >> YALE BOOK OF QUOTATIONS (Yale University Press)
>>> >>
>>> >>
>>> >>
>> ------------------------------------------------------------
>> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org
>> ------------------------------------------------------------
>> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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