Q: When did the medium “film” become the “film” we watch? Did English speakers think “film” was a classier word for the art form than “movie”? As a Sam Shepherd character says in True West, “In this business we make Movies, American Movies. Leave the Films to the French.”
A: English speakers didn’t begin using “film” for a motion picture because they wanted an artier, Frenchified word than “movie.” In fact, this use of “film” showed up in English before “movie.” And we didn’t get “film” from French—the French got it from us. Here’s the story.
When “film” appeared in Old English (spelled filmen, filmin, fylmen, etc.), it meant a “thin layer or sheet of tissue in an animal or plant, or in a product of an animal or plant,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The earliest OED example is from Bald’s Leechbook, a medical text believed written around 900: “Her sint tacn aheardodre lifre, ge on þam læppum & healocum & filmenum” (“Here are the symptoms of a liver hardened on the lobes and the recesses and the films”).
In the early 1600s, “film” took on the sense of a “very thin sheet of any substance,” according to the dictionary, and by the mid-1800s it came to mean “a thin layer of light-sensitive material, typically applied to photographic paper or plates and used to record a photographic image.”
The OED’s earliest example of “film” used in the photographic sense refers to the sheet of silver-plated copper used to make a daguerreotype image:
“We must separate carefully the chemical changes which iodide of silver undergoes in the sunbeam, from the mechanical changes which happen to the sensitive film” (from an 1840 issue of the London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science).
By the late 1800s, the word “film” was being used for “a thin flexible strip of celluloid, plastic, etc., coated with light-sensitive emulsion, used in photography and cinematography to record a series of images.”
The first written use in the OED is from an 1895 Montgomery Ward catalog: “Roll Film, for 25 exposures.”
In the early 1900s, according to Oxford, “film” took on the sense you’re asking about: “a representation of a story or event recorded on film” and “shown as moving images in a cinema or (latterly) on television, video, the Internet, etc.”
The dictionary’s first citation (which we’ve expanded) is from the Jan. 21, 1905, issue of the Westminster Gazette (London):
“The plaintiff is an eminent Parisian surgeon, the defendants a firm who took cinematograph films of his operations. This he allowed them to do, so that he might get scientific records, but the films once obtained have been sold and even exhibited at country fairs.”
The earliest Oxford example of “movie” used in this sense appeared more than five years later. “I finally decided to have a look-in on some of the programs of vaudeville and movies” (from the May 22, 1910, issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer).
But before either “film” or “movie” appeared on the scene as a cinematic work, the terms “moving picture” and “motion picture” were used similarly.
The dictionary’s first “moving picture” citation, which we’ve expanded, is from an Oct. 3, 1896, letter written by Queen Victoria from Balmoral Castle in Scotland:
“At twelve went down to below the terrace, near the ballroom, and we were all photographed by Downey by the new cinematograph process, which makes moving pictures by winding off a reel of films.” William Downey’s moving picture of the Queen is available online.
Oxford’s earliest citation for “motion picture” used this way is from the November 1900 issue of Catholic World:
“That evening, during a reproduction of the Passion Play in motion pictures, a magnificent tenor, interspersing the pictured scenes with arias appropriate to the theme, was received with enthusiasm.”
(The OED has an 1891 citation for “motion picture,” but the term is used to mean a movie camera, not a movie.)
By the way, the colloquial term “flick” first appeared in The Square Emerald, a 1926 mystery by the English writer Edgar Wallace: “We’ll occupy the afternoon with a ‘flick.’ I love the movies—especially the romantic ones.”
The word “flicker,” used the same way, showed up in print a year later. But we suspect that it was around earlier in speech, and that “flick” was a shortening of “flicker.” Both apparently refer to the flickering appearance of old movies.
Now for the latecomer, the French use of film to mean an oeuvre cinématographique.
The earliest example in Le Trésor de la Langue Française, an etymological and historical dictionary of the French language, is from Histoire de l’Art du Cinéma des Origines à Nos Jours, a 1949 book by the cinema writer Georges Sadoul:
“L’ému et tendre Silence est d’or a été le meilleur film qu’ait dirigé René Clair depuis son départ de Paris” (“The moving and tender Silence Est d’Or was the best film directed by René Clair after his departure from Paris”).
When the French originally borrowed the term film from English in the late 1800s, it referred to a bande de pellicule (“strip of celluloid”) used to make photographs or motion pictures.
The French dictionary describes the use of the medium “film” for a work made from it as an example of metonymy, a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is used as a substitute for something it’s closely associated with