Barry Popik gets to the bottom of 'Oscar'

Goshen etymologist discovers the irascible Hollywood reporter who coined the word in 1934

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  • Barry Popik, Goshen etymologist, with the children that occupying him more than the movies these days. (Photo provided)

A new life in Goshen

Barry Popik grew up in Rockland County and graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a B.S. in Economics and a B.S. in Management in 1982. In 1985 he graduated J.D. from Touro Law School in Huntington, N.Y. He always had an interest in writing and in Americanisms, phrases and slang. He was a writer and editor for his college literary magazine The Gorgon and its humor magazine, The Unicorn.
e started an etymology blog in 2004 and contributes to the Comments on Etymology newsletter, edited by Gerald L. Cohen.
Popik was a long-time resident of Manhattan. He spent many hours doing research at the New York Public Library, where he met Gerald Leonard, with whom he collaborated on two books.
Popik also had an interest in politics. While attending a political meeting, he met his wife, Angie, and he was smitten. She recalls him saying, "'Oh, you’re so beautiful.' The meeting was over and the room just went silent."
Angie a political strategist, was trying to get Popik, who was running for Manhattan Borough President at the time, to hire her.
Popik may have lost the election, but he eventually won Angie. It wasn't easy.
“He asked me to marry him 14 times, and 14 times I said no," she said.
She was worried that they would encounter problems: she's Catholic, he's Jewish.
Eventually one of Angie’s co-workers said, "You girls don’t know a good man when you see him.” A light went on. Popik asked her again, and this time she said “Yes.”
Barry and his family were living in Texas when he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. He retired from law, and they moved back to New York last year to be closer to family. They now live in Goshen with daughter, Fidelia, who will soon be six; and son, Gabriel Ethan, who is four.
Popik is co-author with Gerald L. Cohen of "Studies in Slang: Part VI and Studies in Slang: Part VII," and "The Origin of New York City’s Nickname ‘The Big Apple.'" He is a senior consulting editor for The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, and a Consulting Editor for The Yale Book of Quotations.

By Ginny Privitar

— Did you watch the Oscars? Barry Popik, an etymologist living in Goshen, did. No, he doesn’t study bugs (that’s an entomologist). Popick is an expert on the origins of words and phrases. The Wall Street Journal called him "the restless genius of American etymology."

Popik helped put the citation for “Oscar" into the Oxford English Dictionary. There was conflicting information about its origin. Popik wanted to find out the truth.

He went through old editions of The Daily News and found "Oscar" in the March 1934 edition. Sidney Skolski, the Hollywood reporter for The Daily News, was covering the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science awards ceremony. After sitting for almost five hours listening to acceptance speeches, Skolski got back to the Western Union office at 12:30 a.m. to write.

He was not in a good mood. He couldn’t remember how to spell "statuette," and wrote “Oscar” instead. Skolski later explained his choice of word in his 1970s autobiography.

“The snobbery of that particular Academy Award annoyed me," he wrote. "I wanted to make the gold statuette human."

Skolski wasn't a good speller. Without his dictionary, he couldn’t figure out "statuette." He asked the manager of the Western Union office for the spelling, but when he went to type it, he was still thrown by the word.

“Freud would explain that I resented the word and didn’t want to know how to spell it," Skolski wrote. "You know how people can rub you the wrong way. The word was a crowd of people. I’d show them, acting so high and mighty about their prize. I’d give it a name. A name that would erase their phony dignity. I needed the magic name fast. But fast! I remembered the vaudeville shows I’d seen. The comedians having fun with the orchestra leader in the pit would say, 'Will you have a cigar, Oscar?' The orchestra leader reached for it; the comedians backed away, making a comical remark. The audience laughed at Oscar. I started hitting the keys. 'Katharine Hepburn won the Oscar for her performance as Eva Lovelace in Morning Glory, her third Hollywood film.' I felt better. I was having fun. I filed and forgot.”

Skolski appeared to equate “Have a cigar” with “Have a trophy.” During the next year of columns, he used the word “Oscar" instead of "Academy Award." And in a few years, the term stuck.

Popik found that the phrase referred to Oscar Hammerstein I, who had a thriving cigar manufacturing business that financed his true love: opera. He opened a number of opera houses, with some later presenting vaudeville shows and movies. He was the grandfather of Oscar Hammerstein II, who, with Richard Rodgers, wrote the lyrics and music for many hit Broadway plays.

“He was the first Oscar to win an Oscar," Popik noted wryly.

Others make their claims

Later Popik found an article in Time Magazine that corroborated Skolski’s claim that he was the first. Bette Davis said she was first to name the statuette, after her first husband, H. Oscar Nelson, but later withdrew her claim when she realized she didn’t receive the award until two years after Skolski had used it.

Many years later, Margaret Herrick, secretary at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, claimed that the statuettes “look like my uncle Oscar.” She took credit but didn’t actually have an Uncle Oscar. Popik said the Academy was glad to promote one of their own and stood by her claim.

Skolski disagreed. The cranky reporter made the earliest recorded use of the term, and Popik verified it.

Back to the Oscars. Popik said he did watch but found the show boring.

“Jimmy Kimmel after the Oscars was funnier than the Oscars,” he said.

And he didn’t have a favorite film to root for. With two young children, he and his wife don’t get out to the movies much.

“We wait 'til they come out on cable,” he said.

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