Believe It or Not: Hollywood's Oscar Owes Its Name to a Farmer from Texas

Believe It or Not: Hollywood's Oscar Owes Its Name to a Farmer from Texas
Image credit: Legion-Media

And that's not even the strangest theory.


  • Nobody knows for sure where the nickname for the Academy Awards statuette comes from.
  • The most popular theory is that it was so named because it 'looked like someone's Uncle Oscar.'
  • There are many other stories, and we'll probably never know for sure which one is true.

Oscar Who?

It's Academy Awards season, that fun time when critics, audiences, juries and artists argue over who did it best in Hollywood that year. In 2024 we've got movies as far ranging as Barbie ( about a doll), Oppenheimer ( about the atomic bomb), Poor Things ( about a baby-brained, sex-loving newborn adult), and Killers of the Flower Moon ( about racism and murder).

While we all debate whether or not Leonardo DiCaprio should have been nominated for a Best Actor Award, or whether The Color Purple was robbed by its lack of nominations, we'll probably use two terms interchangeably. One is the long-form and official name, 'The Academy Awards'. The other is its snappier nickname: 'The Oscars '.

But where does the name 'Oscar' come from?

Margaret Herrick: The Librarian

The most commonly accepted legend says the name was coined by the Academy's first-ever librarian, a woman named Margaret Herrick. Margaret was looking at the very first versions of the statue when she exclaimed, 'he looks like my Uncle Oscar!'. Oscar was not a member of the Academy or even a citizen of Hollywood: he owned a farm in Texas. The nickname was cute and irreverent and it stuck.

Margaret Herrick may be famous for (probably) coining the phrase 'The Oscars', but she contributed a lot more than that to the Academy. She is credited with caretaking all of its early data collections, and became its executive director in 1943. The previous director was Margaret's husband Donald Gledhill, who left his post to fight in WWII.

Other Claims To The Throne

The very first Academy Awards ceremony was much smaller than it is today. It took place at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel with an audience of only 270 people. They paid $5 for a ticket (about $90 in today's money).

It wasn't until the 1930s, when the Oscars were getting big, that a few people came out of the woodwork to claim that they were the ones who had coined the term 'Oscar'. Most people accept the story of Margaret Herrick and her famous 'Uncle Oscar', but some give credit to these other claims.

Sidney Skolsky: The Columnist

Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky wrote in his memoir Don't Get Me Wrong—I Love Hollywood that he came up with the name 'Oscar' for two reasons. First, it was tiresome to always refer to the prize as 'a golden statuette'. Second, he felt that the Hollywood elite were too snobby about the Awards, and he wanted to give the prize a more down-to-earth name. He claims to have chosen 'Oscar' from an old vaudeville sketch.

Many are skeptical about Skolsky's claim. Skolsky was quick to point out that his column was the first place where the term 'Oscar' appeared in print, but what he actually wrote was this: 'to the profession these statues are called 'Oscars.''

So it sounds that, contrary to what he later tried to claim, the term was already in usage before Skolsky wrote it down.

Eleanore Lilleberg: The Clerk

Former Academy Executive Director Bruce Davis has claimed that he uncovered evidence that the name 'Oscar' came from an Academy clerk named Eleanore Lilleberg. Lilleberg was the person to handle the statuettes before the first ceremony, and letters from her brother state that she nicknamed the statues 'Oscar' after a Norwegian army veteran she had once met, who 'stood straight and tall'.

In other words, Davis says that Lilleberg's brother said that Lilleburg said it was her. It's all a little fuzzy, which is probably why the theory has never gained much traction.

As strange as it sounds, the most likely story is the weirdest one: that the most coveted prize in the world of entertainment was named after a farmer from Texas.

The 2024 Academy Awards will be broadcast on Sunday March 10 at 7 p.m. EDT.