In a moment of revery, I pondered from what language the word "scenario" originated. Unsurprisingly, it's Italian in origin, according to etymonline, but the etymonline etymology surprised me - the word "scenario" was used only in the context of drama and stage performaces until the year 1960, when according to etymonline, it became used to describe nuclear outcomes during the Cold War, after which the word began to commonly mean "a potential set of happenings" in any context.

This implies that people who used the word "scenario" did so in order to indirectly call the Cold War a kind of stage play. Awesome!

This would be great if it were true, so to attempt to confirm this I checked Google's Ngram viewer. Looking at the ngram viewer was enlightening but raised a few questions of its own. While the word "scenario" certainly saw a marked rise in popularity in the year 1960, perhaps due to its use to describe the Cold War, it also experienced a rise in popularity at around 1910.

So, did "scenario" experience a shift in meaning in 1960? If so, did it experience another shift of meaning in 1910?

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    I have looked at the period around 1910–1918, and most citations seem to be about motion pictures, so in the original sense of the English word. The peak is fairly small, there might not be a specific cause for it. Note also that many, many of Google's books are misdated: I saw a book supposedly from around 1910 that was actually from the 1990s. – Cerberus Jan 23 '14 at 4:55
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    I wonder if something similar happened to "theater", acquiring the meaning of "war zone" (the Pacific theater), which would fit with possible scenarios being played out there. – oerkelens Jan 23 '14 at 10:18
  • It is quite possible that the two words are connected - but the word "theater" had been used in the context of war centuries before "scenario" became popular, if the Wikipedia article can be trusted. – zombiebeethoven Jan 23 '14 at 20:50
up vote 3 down vote accepted

You have it pretty much spot on, let me fill in your blanks in reverse order, so as to be in chronological order, and to end with the bit you describe as "awesome".

You were correct not to be surprised; it's Italian and like many English words of Italian origin, relates to music being originally an opera term.

An interesting early use in this regard is from George Grove;s A dictionary of music and musicians:

Scenario, an Italian term, meaning a sketch of the scenes and main points of an opera libretto, drawn up and settled preliminary to filling in the detail.

Interesting, because it shows us that in the 1880s it was being used in English, but still noted as "an Italian term".

Now, you ask:

did it experience another shift of meaning in 1910?

Yes, the cinema! As cinema moved from its early infancy into being a narrative art, it took the term scenario and applied it to what is now called a shooting script.

That sense has now died out because...

So, did "scenario" experience a shift in meaning in 1960?

Yes. As you noted:

it became used to describe nuclear outcomes during the Cold War

More specifically, in the hey-day of the think tank in the aftermath of World War 2, Herman Kahn was working for the RAND Corporation on applying game theory to strategic planning for the potential of conflict between NATO and Warsaw Pact countries with their potential to involve nuclear warfare.

He was heavily involved in producing an approach to thinking about plausible outcomes rather than just those deemed likely, and planning accordingly. His approach involved writing scripts for (so-far) fictional events, as if written by people in the future. Since this was essentially taking the fiction-writer's approach to practical ends, he took the term scenario from the dramatic arts, and so he is considered one of the inventors of scenario planning and almost certainly where it takes its name.

While best known now as one of the inspirations for "Dr. Strangelove" his book Thinking the Unthinkable* had some popular success and was much read by journalists in particular. From this scenario in his specialised use, in which it was essentially a piece of military strategic jargon, moved into the popular culture, and from then became increasingly loose in meaning.

Kahn went on to write crazy predictions of how by the year 2000 we'd have new forms of birth-control, sex-change operations, widespread peaceful use of nuclear power, real-time banking and phones that fitted in our pockets. (Clearly a mad-man).

He'd done his bit for scenario, turning it to a jargon use that mutated into the form we know. Thinking the Unthinkable was published in 1962, which you'll note comes in just before the rise in the graph in google ngram.

*Which amusingly enough cites Red Alert, the novel that Dr. Strangelove was a loose adaptation of. Reading it now it's hard not to picture Dr. Strangelove using Dr. Strangelove references.

  • Sex change operations are not really that much of a prediction from someone in the 1960s, though, since they already existed (crudely) back then: Christine Jorgensen started her sex change operations in 1951. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 5 '14 at 9:06
  • @JanusBahsJacquet yes, it was that the progress made in techniques and (most controversial at the time) that they would be performed on minors that was the real prediction. Like most futurology there was a lot wrong too, but his predictions were still interesting and seem more sensible in hindsight than a lot. Arthur C Clarke is the person most often spoken off as being spookily prescient in this regard, but had the advantage that he was often not making predictions per se, but conjectures for the sake of fiction, and Kahn compares with him well. – Jon Hanna Feb 5 '14 at 9:47

It appears from reading the wiki article linked below, and viewing the chart produced by Google's Ngram Viewer for solely the word "scenario", the word scenario was mainly used in the performing arts profession, depicting the plot, flow, scenery and set changes involved in stage productions prior to 1910.

With the advent of systems such as radio, television, and other media that can disseminate productions to more people, exposure to the term would have expanded as more and more people learned how to create and publish such productions.

The revolution of communications with telephone and radio seems to have expanded the use of the word as more and more people became aware of it and what it meant, and they started applying it to situations outside the theatre.

A scenario is not the basics of the situation, it is parts of the situation that are variables, and can be changed, therefore the application to the cold war and wargaming, business planning, and many other aspects of modern life.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scenario https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=scenario&year_start=1800&year_end=2008&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cscenario%3B%2Cc0

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