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Why are the Academy Awards called the Oscars? Learn the nickname's origins

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When presenters opened the envelopes on stage at the 2024 Academy Awards and announced who the Oscar goes to, they were using a nickname that's been around for almost as long as the award itself. 

The statuette given to winners is technically called the Academy Award of Merit. It's based on a design by Cedric Gibbons, who was MGM art director at the time of the award's creation. He sketched a knight holding a sword and standing in front of a film reel, according to the Academy. In 1928, they began the process to turn that idea into a statue. 

No one is quite sure exactly when or why the Academy Award of Merit began to be known as an Oscar. One popular theory, according to the Academy Awards, is that Margaret Herrick — former Academy librarian in the 1930s and 40s and later executive director —thought that the statuette looked like her Uncle Oscar. After hearing that, Academy staff started referring to the award as Oscar. 

Oscar statues
A display case full of Oscar statuettes at the Academy Awards Carlo Allegri/Getty Images

Foster Hirsch, author of "Hollywood and the Movies of the Fifties," said there's another theory that he finds more plausible. He said some believe the term Oscar originated from Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky, who attended the Academy Awards in 1934. 

The first confirmed newspaper reference to the Academy Award as an Oscar came that year when Skolsky used it in his column in reference to Katharine Hepburn's first win as best actress.

"He thought that the ceremonies were pompous and self-important and he wanted to deflate them in his column," Hirsch said. So Skolsky referred to the statuette as an Oscar, in a reference to Oscar Hammerstein I, a theater owner who became the butt of jokes among vaudeville communities.

"So it was actually a sort of disrespectful or even snide attribution," Hirsch said of the nickname. "It was meant to deflate the pomposity of the Academy Award of Merit."

Another popular theory — though the least likely — is that Bette Davis came up with the Oscar name, Hirsch said. When she won the award for "Dangerous," in 1936, she apparently remarked that "the back of the Oscar reminded her of her husband" as he left the shower. Her husband's middle name was Oscar. 

However, Hirsch said the theory does not really hold up because there are earlier citations of the nickname Oscar being used.

In his book "75 Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards," TCM host and film historian Robert Osborne said the Oscar nickname spread and took hold, even though no one knows exactly who came up with it.

"[It was] warmly embraced by newsmen, fans and Hollywood citizenry who were finding it increasingly cumbersome to refer to the Academy's Award of Merit as 'the Academy's gold statue,' 'the Academy Award statuette' or, worse, 'the trophy,'" Osborne wrote. 

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