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.