Why Do We Call It the Silver Screen? A Look at 3 Old Hollywood Terms

silver screen, old theater

Since its introduction in the early 20th century, the film industry’s contributions to the English language have been manifold. Some terms, along with the concepts they described, were fleeting. Take Smell-O-Vision, the olfactory movie-going experience in which plot-related scents were pumped into the theater during screenings; it made its debut and last appearance in the same 1960s film. However other terms born in cinema have stuck around to this day, and some have even broadened their applications beyond the lexicon of film.

Silver Screen

When English speakers first started attending “the pictures” in the nineteen-teens, movie screens were coated with reflective metallic paint, resulting in a silver surface to better display the projected images. By the 1920s, the term silver screen moved beyond the literal realm and into metaphorical territory to apply to cinema in general. This type of sense broadening in which something associated with an object or concept takes on the name of that thing is called metonymy. With this extension, speakers of English know the phrase star of the silver screen to mean “an actor in films.”


This term was coined by the company of the same name, and the trademarked term described the company’s process of dying film to create a color print from black-and-white originals, replacing the time-consuming hand-coloring method. Patented in 1916, filmmakers widely implemented the Technicolor process, characterized by highly saturated colors, up through the early 1950s. Famous films that used Technicolor include The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Starting in the late 1930s, the term bled into general usage with a new sense: vibrant, flamboyant, or lurid in color, meaning, or detail. The phrase technicolor yawn, a colorful slang expression describing the act of vomiting dating back to the 1960s, embodies a more grotesque extension of this term.


When the term blockbuster entered English in the 1940s, it referred to aerial bombs containing high explosives used in large-scale demolitions as this sort of bomb could take out an entire block of buildings. By the late ’50s, speakers of English started applying the term blockbuster figuratively to nonexplosive items such as motion pictures and novels that achieved extraordinary success. In the film world, blockbusters generally boast high budgets and large-scale productions paired with grandiose narratives. The now-defunct video rental chain Blockbuster first opened in the 1980s and helped further cement the figurative sense of blockbuster to high-grossing films in the minds of English speakers worldwide.

Do you have a favorite cinematic word or expression? We also explored mumblecore and exploitation films on our blog.


  1. Toma -  March 26, 2014 - 5:13 pm

    how about …the word ” HOLLYWOOD ”…

    I know its true etymology,

    but I was wondering if U guys have heard.

  2. Mary Haddon -  March 12, 2014 - 10:07 pm

    How did popcorn become associated with movies?

  3. wolf tamer and iron miner -  March 11, 2014 - 7:44 am

    I’m almost learning more from the comments than I am from the article itself! :) This is better than Facebook…

  4. JoshBroma -  March 9, 2014 - 3:06 am

    The actual first time the word “movie” appeared in print was in a Los Angeles newspaper. Not in the entertainment or arts section, but in the real estate section. Someone advertizing an apartment for rent added a proviso “no movie people” because they were considered bad financial risks in the early days.The person used “movie” as shorthand for “motion picture,” a term first used in 1896.

    So why didn’t the person just run the ad as “no motion picture people?” Simple, just as today, an ad’s cost was determined by how many words were used so the person placing the ad decided to create a word that shortened the word count and thus the cost.

    How about “film”? In 1845 it meant a thin ‘film’ of gel put on photographic plates. In 1905 it was used for the first time as a verb, i.e. “to film a movie” which is ironic since both movie and film can mean the same thing as nouns. Confusing, huh? LOL

  5. Kirsten McCann -  March 5, 2014 - 6:32 pm

    The term B-movie came from the fact that most movie theaters showed a double feature – two movies (and frequently a short and a newsreel) for the price of one ticket. Your big budget picture with stars was the one advertised on the marquee and then there was the low cost B-reel movie, the second movie, that often was much lower budget and lower recognition than the feature film. Similar to the 45 record with its A side and B side – if anyone remembers 45 records….

  6. Markiese -  March 5, 2014 - 5:02 pm

    I never knew this.

  7. Markiese -  March 5, 2014 - 5:01 pm

    Cool.I never knew this.

  8. #flashisfast -  March 5, 2014 - 4:14 pm

    Cool! How about the actual word “film”

  9. Greg -  March 5, 2014 - 7:46 am


    The term “star” actually predates motion pictures, and was used to describe the “brighrtest”–most popular, highly paid–perfromers in stage drama, music hall productions, etc. “B” movies were lower-budget and typically more salacious films in terms of content which would appear on the bottom half of double-feature screenings.

  10. Dave Gardner -  March 5, 2014 - 6:22 am

    “Flicks” and “flickers.”

    After boot camp in 1968, I learned what a flick was when I was asked one evening by a fellow Marine, “Hey, wanna see a flick?” My reply was, “What’s a flick?” “A movie, man.” “Okay.” We trudged over the open grounds of Camp Pendleton to a open-aired location which had, not enough, benches so most of us sat on the ground, and faced a white sheet tacked up to serve as a screen. A projector; three, round, steel cans with reels of film in them; and a generator were set up in the rear and the film started. Watching a flicker under the stars. Memories …

    I guess that “flick” and “flicker” were used to describe the early, silent films which actually flickered when projected onto the silver screens. I have watched quite a few flicks in the manner described above and I continue to use those terms when mentioning movies/cinemas.

    Think of the word “movie.” That’s an odd word to use if you think about it. “What’s a movie?” someone from the 19th Century might ask. Your answer would be something along the line of, “It’s a picture which shows movement. Hence, movies in plural form.” They wouldn’t be able to comprehend your explanation.

  11. wolf tamer and iron miner -  March 5, 2014 - 4:40 am

    Hmm, I never knew this. Very cool!

  12. Alex -  March 3, 2014 - 8:18 am


  13. neewa -  March 2, 2014 - 10:16 pm

    There are a lot of words that people used to use in movie lore. I like the use of “the talkies” that my mom used to say. She grew up in the silent films era (I don’t know why they called them silent because the music was pretty loud.) But she never used “movies” to refer movies, but always called the “the talkies.” The cowboys in the westerns used the word “hep” which meant help. Used in the 50′s meant one was “with it.” In the movies where the woman left her husband because she was unhappy also used a lot of words no longer in use. Movies have always had rare words to give “character” to the main character. I love it.

  14. Don -  March 2, 2014 - 6:48 am

    Starlet comes to mind, as well as ingenue and chorine as residual transfers from one artistic milieu to another.

  15. Afnan Linjawi -  March 2, 2014 - 5:32 am

    I think the expression “behind the scenes” is also another metonymy. E.g: they managed to complete the business plan without any hurdles. Although I’m sure there has been many behind the scenes.

  16. Sujit Chakraborty -  March 2, 2014 - 4:29 am

    What is the origin and original meaning of the term box office?

  17. Sujit Chakraborty -  March 2, 2014 - 4:28 am

    What is the origin and original meaning of the word box office?

  18. Caroline Moon -  March 1, 2014 - 8:24 pm

    Questions about other film-related vocabulary:
    – where does the term ‘star’ come from?
    – where did ‘B-film’ originate? Why aren’t there C-films?

  19. meyer -  March 1, 2014 - 5:26 pm

    What is the name of the theater in the photograph?

  20. Mike -  March 1, 2014 - 1:41 pm

    What about describing the end of something (a meeting or a project etc…) by saying “it’s in the can”? The term filmmakers would use after a day of filming. The fresh film was removed from the camera and canned.
    On a geekier note: George Lucas apparently got the name for his droid R2-D2 from the notes the filmmakers put on the daily film cans Reel 2, Day 2.

  21. Jose Rodriguez -  March 1, 2014 - 8:27 am

    How about explaining to your readers where movie-related terms such as Oscars, Tonies, &c., come from. Josr

  22. B.H. FauxBama -  February 28, 2014 - 5:40 pm

    Why do they show movie “trailers” at the beginning of a movie?

    Many years ago they were shown at the end (trailer) of a movie, no one watched them, because moviegoers left the theater!


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