A lot of prestigious entertainment industry awards have cute or fun names, like MTV’s Moon Person, the Screen Actors Guild’s Actor, or the Grammy’s Grammy (it looks like a gramophone!), but they’re all just chasing the iconic nickname status of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences’ Academy Award, a.k.a. the Oscar. But why is it called an Oscar?
The common belief is that someone once declared that the the statue looks like someone they knew named Oscar, and that seems to be true, but a new book from former Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences executive director Bruce Davis argues that it might be a different person named Oscar than the “official” story would lead you to believe. This comes from a Deadline piece about Davis’ upcoming book The Academy And The Award, which apparently includes a “20-page examination” of the real story behind why people call it an Oscar… or at least as close to the real story as anyone can manage (it is a weirdly unsolvable mystery, considering how much the film industry loves mythologizing itself, since the name apparently caught on like wildfire without anyone thinking to document how that happened).
As told in the book, one old story was that Bette Davis took credit for the name in 1936 because the statue’s “backview” resembled that of her husband, Harmon Oscar Nelson, which makes about as much sense as seeing a kid in a jacket with yellow and black stripes and thinking “he should be called Sting” and not “he should be called Bumblebee.” Plus, the nickname had been in use for years before that.
The other popular story, one that is more commonly accepted, is that former Motion Picture Academy librarian Margaret Herrick said that the statue reminded her of her “Uncle Oscar” one day, which caught on when a newspaper columnist overheard her. However, nobody was ever able to turn up an actual Uncle Oscar and there’s no record of a newspaper columnist repeating this story in the appropriate timeframe, but there is apparently a record of Herrick repeating the story as a running joke between her and her husband at the time—seemingly indicating that it is not true.
Bruce Davis believes that the real origin comes from an office assistant named Eleanore Lilleberg who worked at the Motion Picture Academy in its early days. One of her duties was apparently to take care of the Academy Award statuettes before they were handed out, and she would call them “Oscar.” Davis says that some people believe this was because of Norway’s King Oscar II, as Lilleberg was of Norwegian descent, but apparently King Oscar II doesn’t look anything like the golden bald man we know and love. Instead, Davis tracked down an account from Lilleberg’s brother, Einar, who says the name was a reference to some guy named Oscar they had known in Chicago who always “stood straight and tall.”
So, there you go! It was some guy from Chicago who this Eleanore Lilleberg knew Maybe. Sort of. At the very least, that seems to be the earliest verifiable use of the nickname that anyone can track down, going back to the early ‘30s, so it seems slightly more legitimate than any other backstory at least.