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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.”

Technicolor

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.

Blockbuster

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. Within a few short years, speakers of English were readily applying the term blockbuster 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.

32 Comments

  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.

    Reply
    • The one making comment -  February 21, 2015 - 9:18 am

      HOLLYWOOD came from a tract of land there being advertised by a land developer at a place called HOLLYWOODLAND. They had erected the huge sign on the side of a hill in order to advertise.
      I suppose the sign was eventually to be taken down, but somehow the land part fell down and the rest remained in history.

      Reply
    • Steve -  February 22, 2015 - 2:02 am

      Hollywood got its name in 1887 thanks to Daeida Wilcox, whose husband Harvey, of Kansas, owned the land where Hollywood is now. Hollywood was the name of the summer home of a woman Mrs. Wilcox had sat beside on a train, and she liked the sound of it.

      The sign up on Mount Lee originally read Hollywoodland (until about 1950) as the land was made into real estate before the motion picture industry moved from New York to have more creative control in the 1910s.

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

    How did popcorn become associated with movies?

    Reply
    • Preyash -  February 22, 2015 - 9:42 am

      Popcorn became associated with movies when you started dicking people

      Reply
    • Valarie -  February 22, 2015 - 11:22 pm

      Its yummy

      Reply
  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…

    Reply
    • Preyash -  February 22, 2015 - 9:43 am

      Cool

      Reply
  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

    Reply
    • phytomiter -  February 23, 2015 - 5:45 pm

      to movie a film?

      Reply
  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….

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

    I never knew this.

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

    Cool.I never knew this.

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

    Cool! How about the actual word “film”

    Reply
  9. Greg -  March 5, 2014 - 7:46 am

    Caroline–

    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.

    Reply
    • A non moose -  February 23, 2015 - 10:01 am

      The term star probably came from when the lead actor of a play had the brightest spotlight.

      Reply
  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.

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

    Hmm, I never knew this. Very cool!

    Reply
  12. Alex -  March 3, 2014 - 8:18 am

    Talkies!

    Reply
  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.

    Reply
  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.

    Reply
  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.

    Reply
    • Pincrete -  February 20, 2015 - 1:17 pm

      It isn’t a metonym, it’s a metaphorical expression.

      Hollywood is an example of a metonym, the word no longer just meaning the place, but also the whole film industry and those who work in film.

      Similarly ‘Washington’ to mean the US government.

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

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

    Reply
    • Pincrete -  February 20, 2015 - 1:11 pm

      The private balcony-like ‘rooms’ in grand theatres and opera houses, were (and still are) called boxes, these feature so often in ‘period’ films.

      Therefore the ‘box office’ was where you booked and paid for your box. The term must have always been slightly aggrandising, since most of the audience would have been buying seats, not boxes.

      Despite few cinemas having ‘boxes’, the term is still used for the ticket office for theatres, cinemas and other live performances of many kinds.

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

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

    Reply
  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?

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

    What is the name of the theater in the photograph?

    Reply
  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.

    Reply
  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

    Reply
  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!

    Reply
    • StacyGz -  March 22, 2015 - 5:44 pm

      I believe you just answered your own question.

      Reply

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