Flashing lights, sparkling gowns, the red carpet… This past Sunday was the Academy Awards ceremony, where films of the past year were nominated for best picture, actors recognized for their performance, and directors awarded for their vision. Movies, or films, have been an integral part of our modern existence. From the first motion pictures of the Lumière Brothers to the blockbusters of Hollywood, movies have had tremendous influence in the different fields of our daily lives—art, entertainment, economy, culture, society, etc. In English, one can say either 'movie' or 'film,' depending on region, personal preferences, and semantics. Although both are interchangeable when referring to a filmed motion picture, they can also have a specific meaning that comes from different origins.
Film, widely used in Britain and in other Commonwealth nations, originally means a thin layer of skin, membrane, or sheet. The word goes back to Old English filmen, which meant membrane or skin. By the late 1800s, the meaning of the word expanded to include the filming, or coating, of chemicals to photographic paper, which today we know as photographic film, or film for short. A synonym for film, a thin layer of skin, is pellicle, which ultimately comes from Latin meaning "little skin." In Spanish, the word película (a cognate of pellicle) developed in the same way as film did and has the same meanings as film. Most languages borrowed the word film to mean a motion picture: Arabic, French, German, Italian, Russian, and Turkish, to name a few. In Hebrew, the word סרט seret also means film, but its original meaning is strip or ribbon—an image of strip of film, comes to mind. However, interestingly, the full word for film in Hebrew is סרט קולנוע seret kolnoa—motion picture film. קולנוע kolnoa, motion picture, derives from to words: קול kol—'voice', and נוע noa—'motion,' a moving voice, so to speak.
Movie, short for moving picture, is the common designation of film in the U.S. In the early 1900s, going to see a moving picture film, or a "movie," in a theater became a leisurely activity. By the 1920s, movies were beginning to have sound, for which people called them "talkies," but the name did not catch on. Not many languages adopted the word movie as their own; just a few, like Cebuano and Swahili. Mandarin Chinese may not have borrowed English movie, but they used their own understanding of what a movie is—电影 diànyǐng. 电 diàn means 'electricity' and 影 yǐng means 'shadow.' Perhaps the Mandarin word wants to reflect that the characters are shadows of the actual actors whose movements are powered by electricity. In Japanese, something similar occurred. Movie in Japanese is 映画 eiga, where 映 ei means to show, project, or reflect, and 画 ga means image. For the Japanese, then, a movie is an image projected on to a screen. Both the Mandarin and Japanese words for movie have similar nuances to a moving picture.
We have learned that the word for movies, or films, have interesting origins. One of the ways people name things is to grab what is already available in a language and give it an additional meaning. Overtime, however, the original meanings are less known, if not forgotten. Whether it is a moving picture, a thin sheet of chemically treated film, a moving sound, or an electric shadow, movies will always be part of our existence.