I was wondering about why we call TV and computer displays "screens", and couldn't find any clear etymology for the term's use for displays.

  • A screen is used to prevent things like bugs and leaves from going through a window, and goes across the window frame.
  • A screen is used in a printing method, and is typically stretched across a rectangular frame.
  • A screen is a shield or protective barrier.

My guess has to do with the hardware used in early displays. Perhaps the fields of tiny red, green, and blue cells looked like the screens used on windows and such, and the term stuck even as the hardware changed?

  • 7
    They used more super-tightly knitted cloth for a light-reflecting surface on which motion pictures, slides, etc., were projected. Now they don't reflect light, but are still used.
    – user140086
    Oct 5, 2015 at 18:38
  • 3
    Note that fields of tiny red, green and blue cells are much much much newer than the original screens referred to in Josh61's answer.
    – Colin Fine
    Oct 5, 2015 at 18:55
  • 3
    My assumption would be that the term comes from a "movie screen" (which is basically a piece of coated cloth), and, when television was invented, the TV display surface was similarly dubbed a "screen". The computer "screen", of course, post-dates the TV screen by 20-25 years, and receives its name from the TV screen. (And keep in mind that color TV as we know it post-dates black & white TV by about a dozen years. And computer displays were black & white until the 70s).
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 5, 2015 at 22:47
  • 1
    This has nothing to do with the origin of the word, but you may be interested to know that an old TV or monitor not only looks like a screen with tiny dots -- they contain a metal screen similar to a window screen, called a shadow mask that helped focus the beams inside the picture tube.
    – JPhi1618
    Oct 6, 2015 at 13:58
  • 2
    @JPhi1618 - You are confused. The shadow mask was used in color CRT displays, to separate the colors. The term "TV screen", though, predates color TV by at least a dozen years. And the original B&W CRTs did not have individual dots, but a homogeneous layer of phosphor on the glass face.
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 6, 2015 at 22:35

6 Answers 6


I think it comes from the earlier usage referred to projected images but mainly from its later usage with movies:


  • Meaning "flat vertical surface for reception of projected images" is from 1810, originally in reference to magic lantern shows; later of movies. Transferred sense of "cinema world collectively" is attested from 1914.



  • The viewing surface or area of a movie, or moving picture or slide presentation.
  • 1898, Winston Churchill, chapter 1, The Celebrity:
    • The stories did not seem to me to touch life. […] They left me with the impression of a well-delivered stereopticon lecture, with characters about as life-like as the shadows on the screen, and whisking on and off, at the mercy of the operator.


Ngram: Movie screen vs TV screen vs Computer screen

The following extract from csmt.uchicago.edu examines in depth the complexity of the term "screen" and suggests that the origin of the term meaning display may derive from its dichotomy meaning both display and displayer.

  • An effort to categorize the word screen is at first problematic due to its various diverging and converging definitions. Yet when looked at from a different perspective, these problematic definitions facilitate a more encompassing understanding of the medium and its message. Though the screen acts as a neutral medium, it becomes biased once its message is considered.

  • The third grouping considers the screen as both a display and a mask. OED defines screen as a noun as "an upright surface for display: (a) of objects, (b) of images, (c) in photography, as a focusing screen." In the instance of showing images on the screen, both screen and "display" become verbs: "To show (a picture) on a screen; to project on to a screen as with a magic lantern or film projector; to exhibit as a production for the cinema or television." This is perhaps the best known form of the word screen, both in noun and verb form, the screen is both being displayed and the display. In Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" the images are displayed on the wall which acts as the display:

    • And you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen
      which marionette players have in front of them [...] and [the humans] see
      only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave? (514)
  • In this instance sight, or the act of seeing [Eye and Gaze] the shadows, is a form of screening. Yet there are elements of masking since the images are shadows; if the display of images is supposed to be clear, then what does it mean that the shadows are irresolute? The answer lays in the dichotomy between the screen as a display and displayer and the screen as a mask and masker. While the screen functions as both the display and the act of displaying, it is also a type of mask.

  • Another OED definition of screen as a noun is also as "a wall thrown out in front of a building and masking the façade"; "something interposed so as to conceal from view," like the confessional, itself a form of translator. Screen as a verb also has mask-like connotations: "To hide from view as with a screen; to shelter from observation or recognition". Thus display and mask are antonyms. Ideally, the screen as a display is neutral, in that it does not filter that which it displays; the screen as a mask is biased because it filters what it will show. To complicate things further is the question of what this means for the viewer. It is possible that since the screen can be both a display and a mask, that there can be both neutrality and bias in every projection; an image on display can be biased while a masked image can be neutral.

  • 3
    Why would the surface receiving a magic lantern or movie image be called a screen? Your answer heads in the right direction but doesn't quite convey why it's called a "screen", rather than, say, a "wall" or a "white board" or a "canvas".
    – Martin
    Oct 5, 2015 at 20:35
  • 4
    Ok sorry, but your question clearly mentions TV and computer screens, now you are changing you question.
    – user66974
    Oct 5, 2015 at 21:20
  • 5
    @Josh61 your answer is TV has screen because cinema has screen, but it seems clear that this only scratches the surface. When and why did a screen became a surface to project images?
    – njzk2
    Oct 5, 2015 at 21:32
  • 4
    As Josh61 says, you are asking another distinct question. But it's a good one. At the risk of offending against protocol I'll chase it a bit further down the rabbit hole. Front projections in the early days were on a much more modest scale, and the screens onto which images were projected were akin to the folding and/or portable screens of light wood, fabric or metal construction commonly used in domestic situations (in former times) to block drafts, heat from fires, or for privacy. The use of the word 'screen' in this sense of blocking or shielding goes back to at least 1530 (OED).
    – John Mack
    Oct 5, 2015 at 21:38
  • 3
    An alternate/parallel path to the association of the word screen with projections is the ancient Asian tradition of 'shadow plays', shadows of objects (or people) thrown from a light at the rear onto a translucent screen. This entertainment was transferred to Europe in the 1800's and they were performed in front of large audiences. Again the sense of the screen here is 'blocking the view', but in this case it is the view of the action of the actors and operators behind the 'screen' that is being blocked. We see the 'created illusion' but not the mechanics involved in its manufacture.
    – John Mack
    Oct 5, 2015 at 21:49

I discovered a very helpful passage from the book, The Oxford Handbook of Management Information Systems: Critical Perspectives and New Directions

(link takes you to the passage)

The author notes that the word "screen" originates from the 14th century, and

evolved from the Middle English word serene, from the Middle French escren, and from the Middle Dutch scherm. It is a word akin to the Old High German (eighth century) words skirm, which meant shield, and skrank, which meant a barrier of some kind. The word screen also suggests another interesting signification, further away from us in history. It is a word ‘probably akin’ (MW) to the Sanskrit (1000 BC)” words carman, which meant ‘skin’, and kn'z'nti, which signifies ‘he injures’ (MW). These are possible meanings from which the Middle Age words evolved. The Sanskrit clue suggests that the notions of protection, shield, barrier, separation arose, possibly within the older Proto-Indo-European language, as metaphors of the concept of skin—possibly that of human (or animal) skin.

So there is a lot to do with protection and barrier which run through the evolution of the word. The author goes on to describe the chronological relations between the words:

A barrier or a protection is something raised over and against another something. This ‘other’ something faces the barrier, as the wind faces the windscreen of a car, which means that the screen protects against something, to be excluded, that moves towards it. That which is moving towards the screen could have been understood as a projection (from the Latin word projectare, which meant ‘to throw forward’) over a surface—just like the arrows and bullets were projected over the shields, or like the heat is projected onto the fireplace screen. The screen protects and shelters (just as a skin. . . ) because it receives and holds the projection of that which is not to be received ‘inside’ the cover that the screen provides. But what happens when something stopped by the screen is allowed to pass through? The answer is that it was screened. This means that it was permitted to pass through that barrier, or that it simply passed through it. The screen as a barrier is now understood as a ‘system for detecting [for example] disease, ability, attribute’ (OPDT 1997: 681—2). This interpretation links, or so we hope, the three central themes of meaning attached to the word screen: hiding/protecting, projecting/showing, and testing/selecting (ibid.).

The author goes on to argue that these three themes all have a central intent - a demand for our attention. They provide this table to help show this.

enter image description here P.270

I think that should pretty much answer the question. The author has other interesting things to say on the word as well, and explains the phenomenology of the word and relates it to concepts like "the truth in seeing". Interesting stuff!

  • 2
    I think the reference to "skin" and using a screen to block, combined with @Josh61's answer about TV's "screen" coming from cinema's "screen" makes sense.
    – Martin
    Oct 5, 2015 at 21:43
  • I'm glad I could help!
    – shaunxer
    Oct 5, 2015 at 21:51

The idea of a screen as an upright device, ornamental or protective against e.g. wind, fire, etc., goes back to the 14th century and earlier.

And the sense of a screen as something for the projection of images derives from the fact that it was originally often a screen which was used for displaying objects for exhibition, pictures, photographs etc.

That is the view of the OED in its sense 1d (a).

The OED describes this meaning of screen in this way:

(b) Of images; e.g. a flat vertical surface prepared for the reception of images from a magic lantern or the like; spec. (i) a usually large white surface for receiving the image from a film projector; (ii) a small fluorescent screen, esp. one in a television set or a computer monitor; hence, the monitor itself; (iii) transf. (usually with def. article), moving pictures collectively; the cinema; the film world.

The earliest reference they have to a screen as something for the projection of images dates from 1810:

1810 New Family Receipt-bk. 257 To make Transparent Screens for the Exhibition of the Phantasmagoria.

And as I am sure people realise phantasmagoria was a form of image by magic lantern.

So there we have it. This was the origin of TV screens

  • 2
    Phantasmagoria performances included direct projection and rear (shadow) projection. What is still interesting to speculate is whether the choice of the word 'screen' in this case is because the image was projected onto something resembling a physical object already known as a 'screen' (the upright device etc, or because 'the screen' in the example of the phantasmagoria performance performed the function of screening (that is to say concealing) the mechanics of the creation of the performance that occurred 'behind the screen'. Either meaning, or each reinforcing the other?
    – John Mack
    Oct 5, 2015 at 22:45
  • 2
    @JohnMack That is a very interesting thought - but the OED clearly sees it as the former - listed under (a): (a) of objects; e.g. for exhibition; a frame for photographs resembling a folding screen. 1888 Lady 25 Oct. 374/3 Some of the most delightful panel screens for photographs I ever set eyes on. Though the Phantasmagoria reference, appearing under (b) predates by several decades those examples. Wikipedia has an interesting article on 18th century phantasmagoria - mentioning one exponent who did his work from behind whereas others did it in front of the screen.
    – WS2
    Oct 5, 2015 at 23:00
  • 1
    I tend to see the OED more 'as a guide' rather than the last word. As they themselves acknowledge with their supplements. But every argument requires citations to back it up, which is why I am only responding with comments rather than with an answer. Cheers.
    – John Mack
    Oct 5, 2015 at 23:01
  • @JohnMack from my answer, my opinion is that it's it something that resembles a Benjamin Martin's 1749 definition of a screen, rather than something that performs a screening function. Oct 8, 2015 at 7:32

The 1810 date given for the first use of "screen" for magic lanterns and the like seems a little late to me.

In 1771, the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

Of the MAGIC LANTERN [...]

"[T]he rays [...] will paint an inverted picture [...] upon a white wall, a sheet or a screen of white paper."

In 1769, in "The Microscope made easy":

"Mention having been often made of a Screen to throw the Images of Objects on, it is proper to inform the Reader, that such a Screen is usually composed of a Sheet of the largest Elephant Paper, strained on a frame, which slides up or down, or turns about at Pleasure on a round wooden Pillar, in the Manner of some Fire-screens. Larger Screens are likewise made sometimes with several Sheets of the same Paper pasted together on Cloth, and let down from the Ceiling with a Roller, like a large Map"

I particularly like the specific definition of a roll-down projector screen very much like those still used today.

As soon as I think I'm done, I find one from 1742, in Micrographia Nova: Or, a New Treatise on the Microscope

Thus if a lens of about 6, 8, or 10 Feet focal Distance, be fix'd in the Scioptric Ball, then if the Sun shine strongly on the Objects without, opposite to the Window, the Images of all will be distinctly form'd on a Wall or large Sheet or Screen of white Paper placed in the Focus of the Glass; the result of which will be a beautiful and most perfect Piece of Perspective, if the Objects are Buildings, &c. but Gardens, Fields, Meadows, Hills, Groves &c. present you with a most exquisite and inimitable Landscape

I love how the style conveys the excitement of what must have been a very new branch of science and the spectacle that it presented. Additionally, on the title page, the author Benjamin Martin quotes Psalm 111, v2 by reference in English (Psal.CXI.2.) and in full in Hebrew:

גְּדֹלִים, מַעֲשֵׂי יְהוָה; דְּרוּשִׁים, לְכָל-חֶפְצֵיהֶם.

My favourite translation, which seems most apt, is

Great are the works of the Lord; They are studied by all who delight in them

A very satisfying coincidence (given that I discovered him through an etymological search) is that Mr Martin (not, as I first thought, Jewish) published an early dictionary in 1749, 6 years before Samuel Johnson: the Lingua Britannica Reformata. Sadly his entry for screen doesn't reflect his own usage from 7 years earlier!

SCREEN, or SKREEN, 1 a device to keep off the wind

2 a device to keep off the heat of the fire

3 a wooden frame grated for the sifting corn, gravel &c.

  • The Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Micrographia Nova citations seem to me to use oddly similar wording. Do you know if there is any connection between them?
    – herisson
    Oct 10, 2015 at 22:14

I'm suprised nobody else has put forward this theory, so I will.

It is likely that 'screen' came into use because of the physical construction of early Vacuum Fluorescent Displays (VFDs), which use a physical metal mesh to control the movement of electrons through another phosphor-coated mesh, similar in principle to the way a thermionic valve works. This method was also used in early cathode ray tube displays before the technology to deposit a conductive coating on glass was developed.

  • 3
    I considered that theory, but the usage of "screen" for movies and other projection technologies was already well-established. Occam would argue that it's simply a matter of the word already at hand being used.
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 6, 2015 at 2:49
  • I believe it's a combination of the two. The fact that CRTs really do act similar to an electronic silk screen, or if you will like a cinema screen onto which electrons are projected ... coupled with the fact that the word "screen" was already in use in connection with the cinema ... the word was probably seen as a natural fit to describe a CRT. The term may not be as appropriate for LCD/plasma/etc. displays, but of course by the time those came into play the usage was already well-established.
    – David
    Oct 6, 2015 at 11:58

There might be a deeper etymology of it but I've always believed that the CRT monitors (Cathode Ray Tube) that the old-style TVs were based on basically put a protective barrier between the canon shooting an electron and your eyes.

When that tiny gentleman hit the screen, it lighted up a tiny pixel (picture element) making it a dot on a fluorescent surface.

All the shades and images are then composed of a bunch of those shot at you in slightly different angles. Color TV was then produced by combining dots of different colors close to each other. So, technically speaking, you had three screens - red, green and blue (RGB) but the dots were so close to each other so that your eyes were tricked into seeing a color image.

This is totally different from LCD, TFT and LED but the name remained for traditional reason (just as forwarding in a song or the save icon).

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.