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Why are the Academy Awards called the Oscars? Origin, meaning and history

The most highly-prized award ceremony in show business takes place in Los Angeles this weekend, but what is the origin of the iconic Oscars name?

Glenn Close is interviewed on the Oscars red carpet for the 93rd Academy Awards in Los Angeles, California.
Chris PizzelloReuters

In 2013 the Academy Awards, the most prestigious awards ceremony in the film industry, made a subtle but crucial change to the event. Rather than sticking with the official title that had lasted 84 years, show co-producer Neil Meron announced that they would be “rebranding” the famous prize.

"We're not calling it 'the 85th annual Academy Awards,' which keeps it mired somewhat in a musty way. It's called 'The Oscars’,” he said.

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The famous prize is given annually by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) but for much of its life the golden statuette has been known more commonly by the nickname Oscar. But despite the iconic status there is still some debate about where the name actually comes from.

How did the Oscars get their name?

The most popular explanation, and one generally given by AMPAS officials, is one that goes back to 1931. The story goes that when an Academy Awards librarian named Margaret Herrick first saw the golden figures she exclaimed that the blank face and stern eyebrow reminded her of her Uncle Oscar.

Herrick would go on to become AMPAS Director and her off the cuff remark was captured in Emanuel Levy’s All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards. Levy claims that after Herrick’s quip, “Employees have affectionately dubbed their famous statuette ‘Oscar.’However the first documented use of the term in relation to the Academy Awards actually comes from columnist Sidney Skolsky who referred to the award as an ‘Oscar’ in a 1934 New York Daily News article. He claimed that he was doing so in reference to a classic vaudeville joke line:

"It was my first Academy Awards night when I gave the gold statuette a name. I wasn’t trying to make it legitimate. The snobbery of that particular Academy Award annoyed me. I wanted to make the gold statuette human.”

How have the Oscars changed over the years?

The Oscars statuette has changed considerably since it was first officially announced as the Academy Award of Merit in 1929. The initial version saw the figure standing on a reel of film with five spokes to represent the five branches of the Academy: actors, directors, producers, technicians and writers. But shortly before the first ceremony Los Angeles sculptor George Stanley redesigned to model and removed the reel.

The first awards were gold-plated solid bronze but that was later replaced with gold-plated metal. During the Second World War a metal shortage meant that three years of Oscar winners were given statuettes made of plaster.

Since 1982 the Oscar mould has been cast by the R.S. Owens & Company who provide a 24-karat gold finish on the figures. Over 3,000 Oscars have been presented over the years but many more have been made to ensure that there are no shortages. Shortly before the 2000 ceremony the annual shipment of Oscars was stolen and the Academy now keeps a stash of spare trophies to be used in case of emergency.

The Oscars have struggled with diversity in the past

In the history of the awards, there has only ever been four black best actors, and eight best actresses to win an Oscar. Alongside this, no black director has ever won best director. The Academy has been criticized in the past for its lack of diversity, which reflects some of the perceived prejudices of the film industry as a whole.

For this year's awards, there are two black actors up for best actor, but no women, as well as no directors. Ethnic minorities as a whole make up 40 percent of the US population, but just 17 percent of Oscar nominations. If the Oscars wants to continue to be relevant in future years, this discrepancy will need to change.

Follow the latest updates on the 2022 Oscars in "stories"