Why Do We Call It The “Silver Screen”?

Since its introduction in the early 20th century, the film industry’s contributions to the English language have been manifold. Some terms, along with the concepts they described, were fleeting. Take Smell-O-Vision, the movie-going experience in which plot-related scents were pumped into the theater during screenings; it made its first and last appearance in the same 1960s film, Scent of Mystery. (That’s probably a good thing.)

With film award season in full swing (the 2024 Golden Globes were held January 7, and the Oscars air March 10), we examine a few of the more enduring terms, some of which have even broadened their applications beyond the lexicon of film.

Where did the phrase silver screen come from?

When English speakers first started attending “the pictures” in the 1910s, movie screens were coated with reflective metallic paint, resulting in a silver surface to better display the projected images.

By the 1920s, the term silver screen moved beyond the literal realm and into metaphorical territory to apply to cinema in general. Fun fact: this type of broadening in which something associated with an object or concept takes on the name of that thing is called metonymy.

What does Technicolor mean?

This term was coined by the company named Technicolor, and the trademarked term described a brand name for transforming black-and-white film “by means of superimposing the three primary colors to produce a final colored print.” The process replaced a much more time-consuming method of hand-coloring the prints.

Patented in 1916, filmmakers widely implemented the Technicolor process, characterized by highly saturated colors, up through the early 1950s. Famous films that used Technicolor include The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

Starting in the late 1930s, the term bled into general usage with a new sense: “vibrant, flamboyant, or lurid in color, meaning, or detail.” The phrase technicolor yawn, a slang expression describing “the act of vomiting” dating back to the 1960s, embodies a more grotesque version of this term.

What is blockbuster mean?

When the term blockbuster entered English in the 1940s, it referred to “aerial bombs containing high explosives used in large-scale demolitions” as this sort of bomb could take out an entire block of buildings. The earliest blockbusters appear to have been the invention of the British Royal Air Force and were described at the time as weighing two tons, being about six feet in length, and possessing widespread destructive power.

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.

The now-defunct video-rental chain Blockbuster first opened in the 1980s and helped further cement the figurative sense of blockbuster to high-grossing films in the minds of English speakers worldwide.

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