The Grammarphobia Blog

A wider view of ‘video’

Q: The way in which “video” has become the common designation for any moving image strikes me as a source of some really odd usage, such as this recent headline from Time online: “Why Newly Discovered Video Footage of Franklin D. Roosevelt Walking Is a Big Deal.” However, the 1935 moving image of FDR, whatever we call it, is indeed fascinating.

A: You’ll be surprised to hear this, but the word “video” was indeed used to describe film when Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House.

The phrase “video film,” for example, could describe either “cinematographic film used to pre-record television programmes” or “a cinematographic film of a television broadcast,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED example is from the Feb. 15, 1939, issue of Broadcasting magazine: “New video film. Paramount Pictures … has developed a special soft process negative for television reproduction.”

And the phrase “video drama” was used during World War II for “a dramatic production written or adapted for television.” Oxford cites this headline from the Feb. 23, 1942, issue of Broadcasting: “First video drama.”

In fact, the noun “video” was used attributively (that is, adjectivally) as far back as the mid-1930s to describe TV images or broadcasting, as in this example from the September 1935 issue of Discovery, a London journal:

“They are providing ever better products and service to enable the listening public to get more enjoyment from the ‘audio’ programmes … and will be ready to cater for those who wish … to see such ‘video’ items as may become available.”

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, describes these early “video” senses as “rare” or “disused,” and it doesn’t include the contemporary use of the word to mean any moving image.

Oxford Dictionaries Online, a standard dictionary that focuses on contemporary usage, defines the noun “video” more loosely as the “recording, reproducing, or broadcasting of moving visual images.”

However, the dictionary’s examples generally use “video” in its usual modern sense, a digital or tape recording. Here’s an example of the noun used attributively: “a site on which people can post their own video clips.”

As technology evolves, so does language. We wouldn’t be surprised if “video” is eventually accepted as an all-embracing term for any moving visual image. For now, though, we’d use “film” to describe a moving image captured on celluloid.

Interestingly, the verb “film” is now often used in the sense of making videos, as in this Oxford Online example: “Throughout his busy day, Paul finds time to look for Harry but also to film a video, record some songs, and daydream.”

The word “video” ultimately comes from the classical Latin verb vidēre (to see). The word “film” evolved from filmen, Old English for a thin layer of animal or plant tissue, as we explained in a 2018 post on the history of the various terms for a motion picture.

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