I had a good word etymology to write about today but neglected to write it down and forgot what it was. I asked my husband if there are any words whose history he wondered about. “Movies,” he said. He added drily, “But I’ve heard it’s short for moving pictures.”
That’s his idea of a joke, but of course he’s right. The word’s history goes back to the Romans, even though they knew nothing of the silver screen or Dolby sound. The root is movere, which means “to move.” Pictures comes from Latin as well. Pictura means “picture,” which derives from the Latin verb pingere, which means “to paint.” A picture is something that has been painted.
Cinema, the fancy rich uncle to movies, comes from the Greek, but it means about the same thing as movie’s Latin root. Kinema means “movement.” In the 1890s, the aptly named Lumiere brothers, French pioneers of filmmaking, coined the term cinematographie, or, “recording movement.” The word’s ending was lopped off, except to describe the camera handler (cinematographer) or actual filming (cinematography).
Which brings us to the simple Germanic word film, another synonym, which has nothing to do with moving. It means “membrane” or “thin covering,” as in “a film of dust.” As you may know, back in the olden days, people recorded pictures on a thin material covered with light-sensitive chemicals. In the case of movies, that film, or thin strip of photographic material, was run through a projector, whose bright light threw the images onto a screen.
Nowadays that process happens incomprehensibly, or digitally. A digit is a finger, from Latin digitus. How does modern movie projection relate to fingers? Want to guess? Our answer will have to wait until next week.