Why Are the Academy Awards Statuettes Called Oscars?

Getty Images
Getty Images

In 2013, the Academy Awards were officially rebranded as simply The Oscars, after the famed statuette that winners receive. "We're rebranding it," Oscar show co-producer Neil Meron told The Wrap at the time. "We're not calling it 'the 85th annual Academy Awards,' which keeps it mired somewhat in a musty way. It's called 'The Oscars.'" But how did the statuette get that nickname in the first place?

The popular theory is that the nickname for the Academy Award of Merit (as the statuette is officially known) was coined by Academy Award librarian and future Director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Margaret Herrick. The story goes that when Herrick first saw the statue in 1931, she said that it looked like her Uncle Oscar. According to Emanuel Levy, author of All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards, columnist Sidney Skolsky was there when Herrick said this and would later write that, “Employees have affectionately dubbed their famous statuette ‘Oscar.’”

While the first documented use of “Oscar” as the nickname for the statuette was made by Skolsky—in a 1934 New York Daily News article—there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Skolsky was actually responsible for the above quote. Skolsky, in his 1975 memoir Don’t Get Me Wrong, I Love Hollywood, claimed he first used the nickname referencing a classic vaudeville joke line, “Will you have a cigar, Oscar?” in an attempt to mock the Academy Awards:

"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. ... It was twelve thirty when I finally arrived at the Western Union office on Wilcox to write and file my story. I had listened to Academy, industry, and acceptance talk since seven thirty ... There I was with my notes, a typewriter, blank paper, and that Chandler feeling.

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. I’d give it a name. A name that would erase their phony dignity. I needed the magic name fast. But fast! I remembered the vaudeville shows I’d seen. The comedians having fun with the orchestra leader in the pit would say, “Will you have a cigar, Oscar?” The orchestra leader reached for it; the comedians backed away, making a comical remark. The audience laughed at Oscar. I started hitting the keys ...

“THE ACADEMY awards met with the approval of Hollywood, there being practically no dissension … The Academy went out of its way to make the results honest and announced that balloting would continue until 8:00 o’clock of the banquet evening … Then many players arrive late and demanded the right to vote … So voting continued until 10 o’clock or for two hours after the ballot boxes were supposed to be closed … It was King Vidor who said: “This year the election is on the level” … Which caused every one to comment about the other years … Although Katharine Hepburn wasn’t present to receive her Oscar, her constant companion and the gal she resides with in Hollywood, Laura Harding, was there to hear Hepburn get a round of applause for a change…”

During the next year of columns, whenever referring to the Academy Award, I used the word 'Oscar.' In a few years, Oscar was the accepted name. It proved to be the magic name."

"Mouse's Return," a September 11, 1939 article in TIME magazine, seems to back up Skolsky’s above claim, stating:

"This week Sidney Skolsky joined the growing stable of writers that Publisher George Backer is assembling for his New York Post. Hollywood thought Publisher Backer had picked the right horse, for Skolsky is one of the ablest columnists in the business (he originated the term “Oscar” for Academy Awards) and by far the most popular …"

Though Skolsky has actual evidence to back his claim, his assertion that he coined the nickname is still slightly in doubt. Many claim that during Walt Disney’s Academy Award acceptance speech for Three Little Pigs in 1934—the same year Skolsky first covered the Awards—Disney referred to the statuette his little "Oscar," which was supposedly an already well-established nickname for it within the industry. The term Oscar was commonly used as a mocking nickname for the Academy Award (as Skolsky claims he used it), but in this theory, Walt Disney was supposedly the first in the industry to publicly use the name in a positive light.

Perhaps Herrick really did think the statuette resembled her uncle. Or maybe Skolsky really did come up with the moniker (whether he did or not, he certainly helped popularize it). In the end, nobody really knows why the Academy Award statuette is called an Oscar.

The idea for the design of the Academy Award statuette was thought up by MGM director Cedric Gibbons. His idea was to have a knight gripping a sword while standing on a film reel. Sculptor George Stanley was then hired to create the actual statuette based on this design idea. The first Academy Awards ceremony was held on May 16, 1929 in the Blossom Room of Hollywood's Roosevelt Hotel. The nickname Oscar wasn’t officially adopted for the statuette by the Academy until 1939.

Incidentally, the Academy states that the five spokes on the film reel the knight is standing on signify the original five branches of the Academy: writers, directors, actors, producers, and technicians.

Daven Hiskey runs the wildly popular interesting fact website Today I Found Out. To subscribe to his “Daily Knowledge” newsletter, click here.

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This article originally appeared in 2013.

Mental Floss's Three-Day Sale Includes Deals on Apple AirPods, Sony Wireless Headphones, and More

Apple
Apple

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Apple

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Evachill

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Gourmia

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Why Do Supreme Court Justices Serve for Life?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

There are few political appointments quite as important as a nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Unlike a cabinet secretary or an ambassador, justices serve for life. In the modern era, that often means more than three decades on the court. Thanks to increased lifespans, justices appointed in the next century are expected to sit on the Supreme Court for an average of 35 years, compared to the average of around 16 years that judges served in the past. Because of this shift, some scholars have begun to question whether lifetime appointments are still appropriate, as the definition of “for life” has changed so much since the Constitution was written. But why do justices serve for life, anyway?

Well, for one thing, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t exactly specify that justices and the court are in a “’til death do us part” relationship. Article III says that judges (of both the Supreme Court and lower federal courts) “shall hold their offices during good behavior.” So technically, a judge could be removed if they no longer meet the “good behavior” part of the clause, but there are otherwise no limits on their term. In practice, this means they have their seat for life, unless they are impeached and removed by Congress. Only 15 federal judges in U.S. history have ever been impeached by Congress—all lower court judges—and only eight have been removed from office, though some have resigned before their inevitable removal.

The only Supreme Court justice Congress has tried to impeach was Samuel Chase, who was appointed by George Washington in 1796. Chase was an openly partisan Federalist vehemently opposed to Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican policies, and he wasn’t afraid to say so—either in his role as a lower court judge or once he was appointed to the Supreme Court. In 1804, the House of Representatives, at then-president Jefferson’s urging, voted to impeach Chase, accusing him, among other things, of promoting his political views from the bench instead of ruling as a non-partisan judge. However, he was acquitted of all counts in the Senate, and went on to serve as a Supreme Court justice until his death in 1811.

The point of giving justices a seat on the bench for the rest of their lives (or, more commonly nowadays, until they decide to retire) is to shield the nation’s highest court from the kind of partisan fighting the Chase impeachment exemplified. The Supreme Court acts as a check against the power of Congress and the president. The lifetime appointment is designed to ensure that the justices are insulated from political pressure and that the court can serve as a truly independent branch of government.

Justices can’t be fired if they make unpopular decisions, in theory allowing them to focus on the law rather than politics. Justices might be nominated because a president sees them as a political or ideological ally, but once they’re on the bench, they can’t be recalled, even if their ideology shifts. Some data, for instance, suggests that many justices actually drift leftward as they age.

The lack of term limits “is the best expedient which can be devised in any government, to secure a steady, upright, and impartial administration of the laws,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist No. 78. The judiciary, he believed, “is in continual jeopardy of being overpowered, awed, or influenced by its coordinate branches,” and “nothing can contribute so much to its firmness and independence, as permanency in office.” Without lifetime job security, he argued, judges might feel obligated to bow to the wishes of the president, Congress, or the public, rather than confining their work strictly to questions of the Constitution.

While lifetime appointments may be a longstanding tradition in the U.S., this approach isn’t the norm in other countries. Most other democracies in the world have mandatory retirement ages if not hard-and-fast term limits for high court judges. UK Supreme Court justices face mandatory retirement at age 70 (or 75 if they were appointed before 1995), as do judges on Australia’s High Court. Canadian Supreme Court justices have a mandatory retirement age of 75, while the 31 justices of India’s Supreme Court must retire by the age of 65. Until her passing at the age of 87 on September 18, 2020, the oldest justice on the current U.S. Supreme Court was Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the oldest justice in U.S. history, retired in 1932 at age 90.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court has never had term limits before, there have recently been serious proposals to implement them. Term limits, advocates argue, could combat partisan imbalances on the court. Presidents wouldn’t get to appoint justices purely based on whether someone died while they were in office, and the stakes for political parties nominating a justice would be slightly lower, possibly leading presidents and Congress to compromise more on appointments. One popular suggestion among political analysts and scholars is to impose an 18-year term limit, though critics note that that particular plan does bring up the potential that at some point, a single president could end up appointing the majority of the justices on the court.

In any case, considering such a change would likely require a constitutional amendment, which means it’s probably not going to happen anytime soon. For the foreseeable future, being on the Supreme Court will continue to be a lifetime commitment.

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