When we think about new additions to the English lexicon such as locavore or tase (or other candidates for the New Oxford American Dictionary Word of the Year), it’s easy to forget that some of our most common vocabulary items were once awkward newcomers, like transfer students desperately trying to fit in with the other kids in class. A good reminder of that is John Ayto’s A Century of New Words. Looking through this “chronology of words that shaped our age,” one is struck again and again how so many of our old lexical friends are really not so old after all. Have we really only been talking about plastics since 1909, when Leo Baekeland invented bakelite? And who would have guessed the T-shirt has only been around since 1920, and the zipper since 1925? All of these words must have sounded downright peculiar when they first came on the scene, and yet now they’re unremarkable elements of the linguistic landscape.
One case in point is a century-old word that many observers didn’t care for at the time it was coined: movie. It’s hard to believe that this word was ever in any way peripheral or unusual, considering how wildly successful it has proven to be for nearly a hundred years. As a colloquial shortening of moving picture, movie was originally seen by some as a rather juvenile word. A March 1915 column in The Moving Picture World (uncovered by ace word sleuth Barry Popik) makes the case plainly: “Is this childish word ‘movie,’ on the ground of etymology, a correct word to represent ‘moving picture’ in our dictionaries? Is it a correct word from the common sense point of view? Is it a correct word for grown-ups to use, unless they are still fit for the nursery in mind and accomplishments?” The columnist went on, “By all means let the children use ‘movie’ to their little hearts’ content; but in the name of all that is logical and customary in the making and adoption of the words of a language, let us, grown-ups, put it tenderly away.”
Just how fresh a coinage was movie at the time of this complaint? The antedaters have been pushing back the earliest known usage of the word slowly but surely. In the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary the first citation given was from January 1912, but by the time the entry was revised earlier this year for the forthcoming third edition, an antedating from August 1911 had been found. More recently, Fred Shapiro (an old hand at the antedating game) has been unearthing earlier and earlier examples of movies in newly digitized issues of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and currently the date to beat is Nov. 14, 1909.
Most of the earliest evidence for the word movie comes from the Inquirer and other newspapers in the Philadelphia area, suggesting that the city played a vital role in the initial popularization of the term. Originally, movies could refer either to the motion pictures themselves or to the theaters where they were shown, as in this January 1911 example from the Inquirer: “I had entertained the mistaken impression that the house was one of those “Movies” — as the small boy chooses to call the picture show shops.” When the word began to spread around the country, it was often described as a child’s term; in October 1911, a paper in San Jose, California reported on the East Coast phenomenon of “‘movies,’ as they are known among the street gamins.” (The gamins, interestingly enough, seemed to prefer talking about movies in the plural. When a singular noun was needed in the early days, a compound form like movie show, movie picture, or movie film was typically used.)
The association of the word movie with juvenile language lingered for several years and was evidently seen as distasteful in the burgeoning film industry. Some industry figures attempted to promulgate more “dignified” alternatives. The Essanay film studio in Chicago held a competition in 1910 to find an appropriate neologism for the moving picture, and the winner was photoplay (a word that had, in fact, been in use since at least the previous year). Photoplay was popular enough to become the title of a long-running film magazine founded a few months after the Essanay contest, but it never came close to duplicating the success of movie, nor did any other suggested term.
Now, even in an era of DVDs and streaming online videos, movie shows no signs of slowing down. So the next time you’re enjoying a movie in the media format of your choice, take a moment to remember the street kids of Philadelphia and other youthful film buffs who first circulated a handy colloquialism that has truly helped to shape the modern age.
Ben Zimmer is an editor at Oxford University Press and a true word junkie. Once a week he surfaces from his dictionaries to write this column. Check out his “words of the week” on our main page (center column) or by clicking here