The Academy Awards are the most prestigious film awards in the world, but the prizes are seldom referenced by their proper name. The 8.5-pound, 13.5-inch tall golden trophy is much more commonly referred to as an Oscar, a nickname so common that even the Academy adopted it as an official name in 1939.
But where did the Oscar name come from? That’s a question of some dispute, and the definitive answer may never be known. The nickname arose in the 1930s, according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but several different people claimed to have coined it.
The most famous and widely accepted origin story for the name Oscar is credited to Margaret Herrick, the Academy’s first librarian. The story goes that Herrick saw one of the awards sitting on an executive’s desk and remarked, “He reminds me of my Uncle Oscar.”
The Oscar in question was Oscar Pierce, a Texas fruit and wheat grower, and although she affectionately called him her “uncle,” he was, in fact, her first cousin once removed (her mother’s cousin). Academy staff reportedly overheard Herrick’s off-handed remark, and it stuck, becoming the statuette’s unofficial nickname.
Although best known today for this story, the Academy has called Herrick “among the lesser-known of cinema’s earliest champions” and credited her with “laying the foundation for the Academy’s research library, one of the world’s most important collections documenting the history, art, sciences, and industry of motion pictures.”
Herrick became executive director of the Academy in 1943, replacing her first husband Donald Gledhill, who left to join the United States Army during World War II, according to the Academy.
Famous Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky claimed he came up with the nickname while writing about the 6th Academy Awards in 1934. He claimed he was tired of constantly having to write “gold statuette,” finding the latter word both pretentious and difficult to spell.
“The snobbery of that particular Academy Award annoyed me,” Skolsky wrote in his book Don’t Get Me Wrong—I Love Hollywood. “I wanted to make the gold statuette human ... 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.”
Skolsky wrote that he chose “Oscar” because of an old vaudeville joke in which a comedian would ask the orchestra leader, “Will you have a cigar, Oscar?” only to withdraw the cigar when the orchestra leader tried to reach for it. Skolsky wrote: “In a few years, Oscar was the accepted name. It proved to be the magic name.”
The Academy states that Skolsky’s column on March 16, 1934, is the “first confirmed newspaper reference to the Academy Award as an Oscar.” But whether he invented the term himself has been questioned, especially since the legendary Walt Disney reportedly used the term Oscar while accepting an award at the same 1934 ceremony Skolsky was covering.
One of the more prevalent and colorful theories is that Oscar was named by Bette Davis, one of Hollywood’s most legendary actors. Known for her roles in such films as Now, Voyager (1942) and All About Eve (1950), Davis also became the first female president of the Academy in 1941.
Davis won her first of two Academy Awards for Best Actress in 1936 for her performance in the drama film Dangerous (1935). Upon receiving the statuette, Davis remarked that its naked rear end reminded her of her husband, Harmon Oscar Nelson, after getting out of the shower.
Newspaper articles about that year’s ceremony also reference Davis calling the award her “little Oscar,” fueling rumors that she was the one who invented the nickname. However, many observers have noted that the nickname was in use years before Davis’ win, casting doubt that it originated with her.
The most recently offered theory behind Oscar’s naming came from former Academy Executive Director Bruce Davis. While researching for his book The Academy and the Award, Davis claims he found proof that the term originated with Eleanore Lilleberg, an Academy secretary when the award was first introduced.
Lilleberg had been in charge of handling the awards before the ceremony. During his research, Davis found an autobiography by Einar Lilleberg, Eleanore’s brother, that stated Lilleberg called the awards “Oscar” after a Norwegian army veteran she knew in Chicago, who Einar said always “stood straight and tall.”
Davis wrote that some mistakenly believed the nickname was inspired by Norway’s King Oscar II, but that this a misconception. The king, whose image was widely known because it was featured on sardine tins, apparently didn’t look like the Oscar statuette at all.
Although inconclusive, Davis claims he found additional newspaper interviews and oral histories that affirms this theory, according to Deadline. One of them read: “Unsought though it was, the credit for originating one of the world’s best-known nicknames should almost certainly belong to her.”
Colin McEvoy joined the Biography.com staff in 2023, and before that had spent 16 years as a journalist, writer, and communications professional. He is the author of two true crime books: Love Me or Else and Fatal Jealousy. He is also an avid film buff, reader, and lover of great stories.