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That’s a wrap! The origins of filmic language

“Film is history.”

I’m reminded in the above quote by Martin Scorsese (who, impressively, enters his 49th year as a feature film director in 2012) that film and history are inextricably linked. By its very nature, a film is a historical artifact—a record of some past action that preserves the moment for time to come.

Film, as a medium, also has its own history. It’s astounding to me that filmmaking, which has always exemplified the innovative uses of modern technology, has now been around for well over a century. And the words that have sprouted up and evolved since the inception of the art form have roots that are simply begging to be explored.

Here are a few of the more notable origins from words commonly used in filmmaking:

Blockbuster
A blockbuster film is one that achieves, or is intended to achieve, massive commercial success. The term has military roots, originating in the wartime decade of the 1940s to denote a destructive aerial bomb. The force of the explosion was capable of demolishing an entire block of buildings, hence ‘block’ + ‘buster.’ A blockbuster film is usually expected to break box office records and destroy its competition.

Cliffhanger
Now mostly attributed to television and suspenseful novels, cliffhanger has been used since the 1930s to denote a storytelling device in serialized filmmaking in which the episodic plot ends in unresolved suspense. The etymology ‘cliff’ + ‘hanger’ is pretty explicit, and provides a vivid image: a person dangles off the edge of a cliff, and we, the audience who wish to know whether this person will survive or perish, are also left hanging. Until we tune in next time, that is.

Cutting-room floor
The phrase “end up on the cutting-room floor” is widely used in filmmaking to denote parts of a film that have been edited out, or cut, from the final product. The term “cutting room,” that designates a place in which the cutting of materials is done, reaches as far back as at least the early 18th century and encompasses a variety of manual labor-including working with textiles and meat, and even for a time meant a room in which a surgery is held. In the lexicon of the film industry, the cutting-room floor refers to the discarded strips of film literally cut from the reel. While digital filmmaking has now made the physical cutting-room more or less obsolete, it still remains a valid and common way of talking about scenes or lines from a film that have been edited out.

Green light
When a film project has been green-lit, it has been given the go-ahead, or permission, from the studio higher-ups. The noun green light has been around since the late 1830s, and was first attributed to the railway. It was (and still is) a traffic signal that notified train conductors when and how to proceed. Interestingly, the green light originally indicated to conductors to slow down, with a white light giving the “all-clear.” Red, however, appears to have always meant stop.

In the can
When a film sequence or project is in the can, that means it is done, finito. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase relates to the verb form of can that means “to preserve by sealing up air-tight in a can.” In film contexts, the act of canning is to record onto film. One could also infer a relation to the actual canister, or can, in which the film reel is held after it is unloaded from the camera and when editing is complete.

McGuffin
The McGuffin (or MacGuffin) is a particular event, person, object, or circumstance that is, according to the OED, “initially presented as being of great significance to the story, but often having little actual importance for the plot as it develops.” Another narrative technique originating out of 1930s filmmaking, the term was first used in film contexts by famed director Alfred Hitchcock, who, it is said, borrowed the surname from a Rudyard Kipling story in which a similar diversion is present. To give examples of McGuffins in film would lead into spoiler territory, and so I’ll leave that to you to Google. For more on the language of Hitchcock, see our blog post about the linguistic legacy of the Master of Suspense.

Silver screen
An intentionally antiquated way to generically refer to “the movies” or “the cinema,” the term silver screen carries with it the history of how films were produced and projected in theaters. Screens upon which films were projected in the early years of moviemaking were doused in a metallic paint, creating a highly reflective silver surface. While these screens have mostly been phased out of use with standard format films, 3D films, it turns out, seem to be particularly suited for this mode of projection. As the saying goes, “everything old is new again.”

Tinseltown
Aptly nicknamed to describe the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, Tinseltown finds its roots, obviously, in ‘tinsel’—a sparkling or glittering effect caused by the interweaving of gold or silver thread. Tinseltown is sometimes used in a deprecating manner, as though to cast judgment on the shallowness that life and work in Hollywood and the mainstream film industry oftentimes represents. Having come into prominent usage in the 1960s, a culturally turbulent time in America to say the least, it’s not all that surprising to note an emergence of disillusioned language during this period of film history.

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