The Grammarphobia Blog

Primal screens

Q: During your recent discussion on WNYC about two-faced words, you mentioned that “to screen” can mean either to show something to be viewed or to hide it from view. Here’s an additional meaning: to print something. Since Andy Warhol, this term has gained usage. Yes, I am a screen printer!

A: Thanks for your comments. I was discussing contronyms, words that are their own opposites, so I mentioned only two contradictory meanings of “to screen.”

There are, of course, quite a few other meanings for the verb, including to protect or shelter, to cover a military movement, to sift, to search for a disease, and to examine for admission.

The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary for the verb “screen” used in printing comes from R. Randolph Karch’s Graphic Arts Procedures (1948): “Both type matter and illustrations are screened.”

The first citation that refers to screening a motion picture is in a 1913 issue of Writer’s Magazine: “Because you fail to see your story, in spite of the fact that you see others of the same type screened, will not be proof that editors are prejudiced against you.”

And the earliest reference for “screen” used to mean hide from view dates from 1686. In a book about celestial bodies, John Goad wrote that clouds “shall skreen the Sun from us.” In other words, an early sunscreen!

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