It’s hard to snub the spectacle completely, the Oscars. Movies have such a significant standing in America’s cultural, historic, and economic life. Sure, there is gilded excess and celebrity worship. Yes, the Academy has a history of failing not only to award but even nominate great films, directors, actors, writers, and other industry creatives. And too often, movies and cinema culture loom too large in our minds, much like the Hollywood sign, so iconic in our imaginations yet underwhelming in the flesh. But, in an age of fragmentation and multi-tasking, it’s comforting to have a cultural touchstone–to have some sort of conversation and narrative in common with our neighbors.
So, in this spirit, let’s roll out the etymological red carpet for “Oscar.”
Much lore surrounds how the Academy’s statuettes were awarded its sobriquet. I can’t resist quoting the Online Etymology Dictionary’s (concise) account, particularly because of the delightful, matter-of-fact epithet at the end:
The name is said to have sprung from a 1931 remark by Margaret Herrick, secretary at Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, on seeing the statuette: “He reminds me of my Uncle Oscar.” Thus the award would be named for Oscar Pierce, U.S. wheat farmer and fruit grower.
Sorry, uncles and farmers, Oscar‘s origin will humble you. It’s an Old English name, Osgar, which means “God’s spear.” Os, denoting “god” and used in personal names and compounds, comes from a Proto-Indo-European root, *ansu–, “spirit.” Asgard, Oswald, Osmund, Osborne–all of which I’m predicting will be the hip baby names for boys in 2018–also feature this root. For *ansu-, historical linguists also propose meanings of “breath” and “deity,” reconstructing root verbs, too, of “produce, beget, engender, give birth to.”
I mean, the Oscars celebrate creativity and all, but, let’s be real.
Gar is one of a number of Old English words for “spear.” Roger that? Indeed, Roger that, for the name ultimately means “spear-famous” (Partridge), joining hrod– (fame) and gar. (Old English had a number of consonant clusters–/hw-, hl-, hr-, hn-/–whose initial /h/ has since been lost. The origin of lord and lady are particularly noteworthy on that matter.) This Roger may also be kin to Hrothgar of Beowulf fame, but the facts aren’t firm. The name Robert, however, is a veritable cousin, featuring that same hrod– along with berht, meaning “bright”–so, “bright in fame” (Partridge).
“And the Robert goes to”–now that seems fitting.
8 thoughts on “And the “Oscar” goes (back) to…”
Sorry, John. I don’t think this is right. There certainly was an OE name but the prevailing opinion seems to be that the common personal name is from an almost identical Irish name with a totally different etymology popularised by Macpherson in the 18th century in his bogus piece of Fenian lore, Ossian. Incidentally, the name Ossian (Oisín) is from the same root as the Irish Oscar, os being an old term in Irish for a deer.
Interesting. I did come across that “Oscar” may be Irish in origin, joining “os” (deer) and “cara” (friend), so, friend of the deer. (Stark contrast to “god’s spear,” implying that same deer should be in flight.)
Given names are tricky business, to be sure. In this case, we have other given names that feature the elements of the Old English “Oscar”: “Edgar” features “gar,” “Osmond” features “os.” I feel this lends a little more weight to the Old English origin. I don’t know what weight this adds, but, phonologically, Old English
was voiced, pronounced like /z/, and thus it makes sense for the voiced that follows. A devoiced with /s/ followed by a devoiced /k/ follows.
Do you know of Irish names (outside of Oisín) that also features the Irish “os” or “cara”?
Hi John, I don’t know why those bits are crossed out. Come to think of it, I can’t think of any other names that sound quite like that, so maybe you are right. Perhaps this is really a Norse name which somehow came to be linked to the Fianna and the os = deer is just an explanation after the fact. The reason why I’m inclined to change my mind is because Ruairc, the origin of O’Rourke, is thought to come from Norse Hrothgar. I may have spoken too soon! I’ll see if I can find anything else on the origins of the name..
Hi John, I did find a Faolcar son of Maolodhra. Faol means wolf, so this is wolf-friend. In other words, this supports the idea of Oscar being Irish. However, Professor Zimmer, who died back in 1910, was apparently of the opinion that much of the Fenian lore was of Norse origin, including Oisín and Oscar, which he links to Norse names, and the Oscar one is obviously cognate with your Germanic origin above. So, no certainty one way or the other, then!
Good sleuthing! So we do have more evidence for the use of “cara,” as well as animal + “cara” constructions in Irish names. What is the length of Zimmer’s shadow, so to speak? Does his hypothesis have much clout?