Boys Baby Names: Spotlight on Oscar

February 2, 2017 John Kelly

By John Kelly

There’s a lot of Oscar buzz in the air. From the announcement of Academy Award nominees in mid January to the red-carpet ceremony in late February, we chatter about who will take home Tinseltown’s top trophies. But the name Oscar isn’t just the stuff of Hollywood legends, it turns out. Let’s have a closer look into this much celebrated, and much mythologized, name.

There are two main theories for the origin of the name Oscar. The first thinks Oscar comes from the Old English Osgar. This name literally means “god’s spear” or “divine spear,” conveying the sense of a “champion warrior.”

The first part of Osgar, os, was an Anglo-Saxon word for “god” commonly used in personal names. It lives on in other names, too: Osborne (“god’s bear”), Osmond (“divine protection”), and Oswald (“god’s power”), to name a few. Too old-fashioned for your taste? Then you might find their common nickname, Oz, divine. The remaining part, gar, meanwhile, shows up in the name Roger, or “famous (with a) spear.”

The second theory roots Oscar in Irish lore. As he’s remembered in the ballads of what’s called the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology, Oscar was a vaunted warrior. The literal meaning of his name, though, may not sound so fierce: “deer friend.” (Here, os means “deer” and cara, “friend”.) But why deer? These folkloric fighters were also known for their skill in hunting, for one thing. The name may also allude to a legend that a druid transformed Oscar’s grandmother into a deer. Indeed, the name of Oscar’s own father, the bard-battler Oisin, means “fawn.”

In the mid 1700s, Scottish poet James Macpherson claimed he discovered the actual poetry of Oisin. Though Macpherson essentially fabricated his ‘translation, it was still enormously popular in his day. French general JeanBaptiste Bernadotte, later crowned King of Norway and Sweden in 1818, named his son Oscar due to great admiration for Macpherson’s poetry. Some even say Napoleon himself suggested the name. Bernadotte’s son went on to become Oscar I of Sweden, enthroning Oscar as royal name, where it remains, as we saw, much beloved today.

The name of another famous Irish writer, Oscar Wilde, may also nod to the mighty Oscar of Celtic myth. And Oscar the Grouch, the shaggy, green, trashcan-dwelling curmudgeon on Sesame Street, may have taken his name, and personality, from a rude waiter at Oscar’s Tavern, a Manhattan dive bar.

As for Oscar the golden statuette awarded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences every year around this time? Formally called the Academy Award of Merit, the nickname Oscar has several origin stories. One, acknowledged by the Academy itself, credits Margaret Herrick in 1931. Then librarian of the Academy, Herrick commented that the statuette looked like her Uncle Oscar. That Oscar was actually her cousin, Oscar Pierce, a wheat and fruit farmer.

But Hollywood gossip columnist Sidney Skolsky claimed he coined “Oscar” when covering the ceremony for New York’s Daily News in 1934. Seeking to mock Hollywood’s self-importance (and possibly struggling to spell the word statuette), Skolsky drew on a vaudeville gag: A comedian asks an orchestra conductor, “Will you have a cigar, Oscar?” only to pull away when he reaches for it. This Oscar, apparently, alludes to Oscar Hammerstein I, theater impresario, cigar manufacturer, and grandfather of Broadway lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame.

Whatever the case, Skolsky’s use of Oscar in 1934 is considered the earliest written record we have of the statuette’s nickname, and, in spite of his snide intentions, he helped to popularize it. The Academy went on to adopt the nickname in 1939 and officially rebranded the Academy Awards as the Oscars in 2013.

Some actors don’t just win gold: They turn their names into it. Oscar Asche, a popular Australian thespian in the early 20th century, lived extravagantly in his heyday. Noting this, Australians used Oscar Asche as rhyming slang for “cash” (money), later shortened to oscar.

The name Oscar has truly gotten quite the bang for its buck, er, oscar. For the fifth time since 1998, Oscar was the most common name for Swedish newborn boys in 2016, according to Statistics Sweden. In the U.S, it ranks in the top 200 boy names. And over here on Nameberry, it’s climbed all the up way to #21. Its exact origins may be disputed, but there’s no doubt that the name Oscar – triumphant warriors, actors, and Swedes alike – is a winner.


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