Some mysteries just cannot be solved right now: like, if Bigfoot actually exists (sorry, believers) or where we go when we die. Though it might not be the most existential questions you’ve ever asked yourself, we know you’ve wondered, why are Academy Awards called Oscars, anyway? Lucky for you, dear reader, this is one mystery we can solve.
If you’re a passive viewer of award shows and celebrity news — you know, as in you can barely tell the difference between the Kardashians — it might have seemed like just an odd quirk of the entertainment industry. But there is actually a reason for it.
So, why are Academy Awards called Oscars?
To be clear, it was specifically the statuettes that were called Oscars for a while, as the award ceremony was still referred to as the Academy Awards. That all changed in 2013 when the Academy Awards underwent a rebranding of sorts, opting for the short and catchy name “The Oscars” instead of “the 85th annual Academy Awards.” It was a conscious decision made by the co-producer of the show, Neil Meron.
But even if we’re only talking about the actual statuettes handed out, why are Academy Awards called Oscars? That’s all thanks to one woman, or so one of the origin stories goes. That woman was Margaret Herrick, Academy Award librarian and future Director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (For the record, those statuettes are technically called Academy Awards of Merit.) Herrick reportedly saw the statuettes in 1931 and affectionately commented that they looked like her Uncle Oscar, a name that quickly caught on.
This theory seems to be corroborated Emanuel Levy’s All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards, in which the author claims columnist Sidney Skolsky was present when Herrick made her remark. Levy claims that Skolsky later wrote that “Employees have affectionately dubbed their famous statuette ‘Oscar.’”
It’s a cute story and a tidy answer to the question of why are Academy Awards called Oscars, but is it the right one?
Why are Academy Awards called Oscars? Another explanation…
Herrick isn’t the only one given credit for this long-standing nickname. There’s some evidence, as Mental Floss reports, that Skolsky himself may have coined the term in reference to the statuettes out of pure frustration at the snobbery of the Academy Awards.
Skolsky was the first to use the nickname on paper, specifically in a New York Daily News article from 1934 but it’s unclear whether the columnist actually wrote the line mentioned by Levy. The columnist himself makes it clear that he did use Oscar as a nickname for the statuette, but implies it was an original invention, inspired by classic vaudeville theater. Skolsky recalled the decision in his 1975 memoir, Don’t Get Me Wrong, I Love Hollywood. “The snobbery of that particular Academy Award annoyed me,” he recalled.
And it’s that annoyance that lead to the Oscars nickname, he explained. “You know how people can rub you the wrong way. The word was a crowd of people. I’d show them, acting so high and mighty about their prize,” Skolsky wrote about that particular award ceremony. “I’d give it a name. A name that would erase their phony dignity.” That name was Oscar.
Then again, some credit the father of modern animated fairy tales, Walt Disney, with making this nickname popular — in a way. The “Oscar” nickname was already a popular nickname at that time, according to this alternative theory, but people used it in a condescending way. Disney is credited with being the first to publicly use the nickname in a way that was positive during an acceptance speech at the 1934 Academy Awards.
OK, so maybe it’s not a hard and fast answer to the question why are Academy Awards called Oscars. But it’s still more documentation than you get on Bigfoot.