Why Are The Academy Awards Called The Oscars?

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Love them or hate them, the Academy Awards remain a cornerstone of the movie industry and popular culture. Film fans everywhere tend to have a lot to say about the award show, even if it’s to get a few grievances about its existence off their chests. Through all of its ups and downs over the last 90+ years, that continued level of relevance is a testament to the power of the name “Oscars.”

But for as popular as that shorthand name for the Academy Awards may be, its origin remains surprisingly obscure. In fact, until very recently, we only had a vague idea of how, when, and why the name “Oscars” became synonymous with the Academy Awards. It’s a story that not only reveals the truth (or at least the partial truth) behind a question you’ve likely asked at some point but quite a lot about how the culture of the Academy Awards has changed over the years.

What Is the Difference Between the Oscars and The Academy Awards?

Despite popular perception, there is a slight difference between the Academy Awards and the Oscars. Technically, the Academy Awards is the name of the awards show itself. For instance, the 2024 show is known as the 96th Academy Awards. The Oscars, meanwhile, is the name given to the statues that Academy Award winners receive. 

Over time, though, the line between the two names has blurred. Early on, if you won an award at an Academy Award show, you won an Academy Award. Later, if you won an award, the physical award was known as an Oscar. The two gradually became interchangeable and often inseparable. If you tell someone you’re watching the Oscars, they know you mean the Academy Awards. If anything, it’s strange to say you’re watching the Academy Awards rather than the Oscars. Something about using the former just feels pretentious and unnecessary when the latter, shorter name is available. Keep that point in mind for later. 

When Did We Start Calling The Academy Awards The Oscars?

Technically, the name “Oscar” in relation to the award that is being presented wasn’t registered as a copyright by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences until 1975. From there, the Academy not only began pushing the significance of that branding harder than ever but legally enforced their claim to the name when necessary. Believe it or not, it has occasionally been necessary.

However, presenters at the Academy Awards ceremony began officially referring to the physical award as the Oscar way before 1975. The first recorded instance of someone using the name Oscar in an official capacity during the Academy Awards show happened in 1939.  So, if we want to uncover the origins of the name, we have to start around that time.

Bette Davis Lies

The first legend of the Oscars name can be traced back to 1962 when actress Bette Davis claimed to have coined the term in 1936 after she won an Academy Award for her role in the movie Dangerous. In her book The Lonely Life, Davis recalled that the back of the statue reminded her of her husband at the time, Harmon O. Nelson. The “O” in his name stood for “Oscar,” which later became the shorthand name for the award itself. 

It’s a wild story, but it’s Bette Davis we’re talking about. Davis was not just one of the most famous actresses of that era but a former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. As such, it’s not inconceivable that her offhanded remark about the award may have had a massive and lasting influence. 

However, this is where I have to pull a Jonathan Frakes and tell you that this story is false, phony, and total baloney. The term “Oscar” was used to describe the awards at least a few years before Davis claimed to have coined it. Indeed, Davis later retracted her original claim in the 1974 book, Mother Goddam

What Davis’ story does teach us is that there is a crucial distinction between the person who coined the phrase and the person who popularized it. Maybe Davis didn’t invent the term, but someone (or several people) had to help spread the name before it became widely accepted. That crucial distinction brings us to the next candidate…

Sidney Skolsky’s Story

Shortly before Davis formally withdrew her claim, longtime entertainment journalist Sidney Skolsky offered an alternate theory regarding the origins of the statue’s name. 

In his 1970 book Don’t Get Me Wrong—I Love Hollywood, Skolsky suggested that he may have coined the term “Oscars” way back in 1934 when reporting on the Academy Awards. Why Oscar? Well, Skolsky says it was a reference to the old Vaudevillian phrase, “Will you have a cigar, Oscar?” Skolsky was having a little fun with the spectacle of the gala event by equating the motion picture industry’s big night with a gag from the Vaudeville scene. 

This is a much more interesting and substantial theory. Not only does the timeline make sense, but as a noted industry reporter, Skolsky’s decision to use that phrase in major publications would have helped it spread faster and further than any offhand remark from Davis ever could have. 

Unfortunately, it’s not the real story. At the very least, it’s not the whole story. 

In 2022, author and former Academy Award executive director Bruce Davis published a landmark book (at least for our purposes) called The Academy and the Award: The Coming of Age of Oscar and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The title is a mouthful, but the subject matter is even more substantial. In that book, Davis recaps nearly the entire history of the Academy Awards and shares quite a few new details about the award show.  

Davis even reveals new information about the “Oscars” name that refutes Skolsky’s claim. In that book, Davis reveals that the piece Skolsky referred to seems to be a 1934 New York Daily News article in which Skolsky states that “to the profession, these statues are called ‘Oscars.’”

The wording offers a minor, but potentially significant, distinction. Unless there were crossed wires or some kind of misunderstanding, Skolsky’s article implies that the term “Oscars” was being used by those in that corner of the industry before he filed his report. If we interpret that reading at full value, then we have to conclude that Skolsky did not coin the term but may have just helped to popularize it. 

Davis offers his own theory, too…

Uncle Oscar

In his book, Davis cites and refutes a popular theory that suggests that beloved Academy employee Margaret Gledhill first referred to the Academy Award statue as an Oscar in 1931 because it reminded her of her uncle Oscar. Some versions of that story go on to theorize that a reporter once heard her refer to the statue as an Oscar and began using that phrase in print when describing the award.

However, nobody has ever been able to prove that Gledhill had an uncle named Oscar. For that matter, it’s not clear if she had any relatives named Oscar at all. There is also no documented instance of a reporter using the name Oscar in a major publication before Sidney Skolsky did so in 1934.

Davis instead recalls the story of a secretary named Eleanore Lilleberg, who worked for the Academy in the early 1930s. Among other things, Lilleberg was one of the people responsible for monitoring and maintaining the statues before the show. Legend has it that she began referring to them as “Oscars” and that the name spread internally from there before going wide.

Why Oscar, though? Well, Davis refutes the popular theory that Lilleberg was of Norwegian descent and so used the name as a reference to the former Norwegian King, Oscar II. Indeed, it seems odd that Lilleberg would have made that association given the physical differences between Oscar II and the design of the statue. Instead, Davis argues that Lilleberg likely used the name as a reference to an old army veteran she knew who apparently stood as “straight and tall” as a statue. 

Davis references interviews with those who knew Lilleberg to support his theory (including interviews with those who knew Lilleberg. Even still, it’s very much worth noting that the Lilleberg origin story has not been verified beyond any reasonable doubt and likely never will be.

It’s certainly a believable origin story, but it’s not like anyone made a record of the day Lilleberg allegedly came up with the name. There are also, perhaps unanswerable, questions regarding what happened between Lilleberg coining the name and publications picking up on the then-increasingly accepted nickname. It seems logical that it’s one of those things that just caught on, but there are parts of the timeline begging to be filled in.

Yet, this is one of those stories stories where the “How?” may be less important than the “Why?”

Why Does Everyone Call The Academy Awards The Oscars?

Regardless of who coined the phrase “Oscars,” the name had to gain steam for some reason. Not only did those within the industry begin tossing it around, but those who listened to, read about, and, eventually, watched the awards show itself adopted the name, too. As noted above, we’re now at the point where more people probably know the name “Oscars” than “Academy Awards.” Why is the name so popular, and why does everyone use it?

Ultimately, it comes down to pretentiousness (or a lack thereof). I love the Academy Awards, but they can be a bit…much, even during the best years. Things have been like that since the origins of the event itself. 

In fact, here is what Louis B. Mayer (founder of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) had to say about the origins of the awards: “I found that the best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them … If I got them cups and awards, they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created.”

Frightening imagery and harsh industry reminders aside, there is something primal in that statement that reveals quite a lot about the power of the Oscar name. Early on, it made sense that actors, producers, directors, and every other person in the industry would use a nickname for the awards as both an inside joke (the early Academy Awards were basically industry events) and to remind themselves of the absurdity of the thing. At the very least, it stands to reason that actors and filmmakers would want to use such a casual nickname to dismiss the seriousness of an award they actually cared quite a lot about. If you think otherwise, you’ve never met anyone in that industry. 

Over time, it seems likely that, on some level, we all started calling the Academy Awards the Oscars to whittle away at that layer of pretentiousness that has long been associated with the event. Perhaps that even helps explain why it was officially adopted as a major part of the brand’s image. The name “Oscars” really does help disarm the self-seriousness of film’s most beautiful, talented, and successful people gathering to celebrate themselves. The Academy Awards? That’s a trade show name that makes the whole thing feel like a business. Oscars? Well, that’s a fun party that everyone feels like they can join.

The post Why Are The Academy Awards Called The Oscars? appeared first on Den of Geek.

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