Why Is It Called a Blockbuster?

Do you consider yourself a movie buff? The 74th Golden Globe awards aired on January 8, and the nominations for Best Drama, Best Musical or Comedy, and Best Animated Film got us thinking—is Deadpool a drama or a comedy? And on that note, why do we often call superhero movies and summertime smash hits “blockbusters“?

The linguistic origins of the blockbuster are fittingly militaristic, since so many such movies are themselves concerned with gun battles, explosions, and other things that go boom. The first blockbusters were bombs, specifically bombs that were able to bust an entire block.

In 1942 the word began being used in newspapers; an article from the Bellingham Herald on July 27th has the headline “Those ‘Big, Beautiful’ Bombs Are Called ‘Block Busters’ By Germans.” The earliest blockbusters appear to have been the invention of the British Royal Air Force, and are described at the times as weighing two tons, being about six feet in length, and possessing of “very great destructive power.”

Blockbuster began to broaden its meaning almost immediately, and within a year it had already taken on metaphorical shades. An article in the Showmen’s Trade Review on July 3rd of 1943 used the word to refer to something other than an actual bomb in a headline, “Blockbuster Hail Stones Cost Theatreman $150 for New Roof.” Slightly later that year, in October, an article in Photoplay Magazine used the word in the sense of “something big and exciting”: “Photoplay’s editors handed this green corporal a block-buster.”

Once the Second World War ended, and the literal bombs were no longer being dropped, blockbuster continued to be used metaphorically, generally to describe something that was of great excitement or significance. The term was often used in describing movies, especially by marketers, but not necessarily more so than in describing other things that had a certain wow-factor.

An article from August of 1954 in Film Bulletin, a periodical devoted to the motion picture industry, sheds some possible light on how the word came to be so associated with movies. It concerns a report on the plans that the executives of United Artists had for releasing upcoming features, and says “From exploitation-minded vice-president Youngstein came the term ‘block-buster’ to describe attractions that gross at least $2,000,000 in the U.S. and Canada.” (The Youngstein in question is Max E. Youngstein, one of a group of five partners who bought United Artists from Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks Sr.)

Accounting for inflation, a film today would have to gross more than $17.5 million to meet Youngstein’s definition of a blockbuster. So over the next several months, when you’re standing in line to see the sequel to the sequel of last summer’s hit, you can take comfort in knowing that the term for the entertainment you will soon enjoy was born of a combination of aerial bombardment and cinematic advertising.

Ammon Shea is the author of Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation and Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages. He lives in New York City with his wife (a former lexicographer), son (a potential future lexicographer), and two non-lexical dogs.

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