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I've always thought that the term "star", used to refer to a much celebrated artist, was originally a Hollywood expression used to refer to movie actresses (such as Gloria Swanson or Bette Davis for instance), but checking its etymology I see that the term has been used with that connotation well before the film industry was born.

Star: (n)

  • Meaning "lead performer" is from 1824;

Star: (v)

  • Meaning "perform the lead part" (of actors, singers, etc.) is from 1824.

(Etymonline)

I could not find more details, so I am asking:

1) was "star" first used to celebrate theatre actors or actresses or was it probably used for Opera singers, to celebrate some famous Prima Donna? To whom and in what context was the term "star" was first applied to?

2) from when was the famous expression "a star is born" applied to artists?

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  • Worth noting that "a star is born", referring to the Star of Bethlehem, goes back at least to 1675, in a bit of poetry of Sir Matthew Hale, so the phrase likely alredy had resonance.
    – Ben
    Jan 5, 2016 at 13:09
  • @Josh61 Please edit this to make the title an actual question. You have the freedom to choose what that is, but please do so. And if possible, it would imply both sub-questions (which my attempt at a title did not.) Jan 5, 2016 at 23:30
  • 2
    Leave the title, there is no rule that states the title must be a question, it's pertinent, it's clear, and it's got the tag etymology.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 5, 2016 at 23:53
  • @curiousdannii - that's is my original question and I want to leave it unchanged. The body contains enough information to make my question clear as the three answers suggest. If you don't like it you are free to downvote it. (btw I am still waiting to see you active on the Q&A of this site. I know that finding faults with other users Q&A is easier). :)
    – user66974
    Jan 6, 2016 at 0:07
  • @curiousdannii - well done.
    – user66974
    Jan 6, 2016 at 0:10

3 Answers 3

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For your (1), regarding the use of 'star', the earliest uses I could unearth of 'star' in the figurative sense,

  1. fig. A person of brilliant reputation or talents.
    a. An actor, singer, etc. of exceptional celebrity, or one whose name is prominently advertised as a special attraction to the public...orig. Theatr.

["star, n.1". OED Online. December 2015. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/189081 (accessed January 05, 2016)]

first appear in print in articles and publications about the theater, with reference to David Garrick:

garrick1

(From "Memoirs of David Garrick, Esq.", an article in the July 1765 edition of The Gentleman's and London Magazine.)

The earliest quote given for the theatrical star sense (5a) in OED Online, dated 1779, also refers to David Garrick, yet (as indicated by the square brackets surrounding it) "is relevant to the development of a sense but not directly illustrative of it":

[1779 J. Warner in J. H. Jesse G. Selwyn & his Contemp. (1844) IV. 30 The little stars, who hid their diminished rays in his [Garrick's] presence, begin to abuse him.]

The next attestation I could find for 'star' in the theatrical sense is this from 1812:

enter image description here

(From Biographia Dramatica: Authors and actors. Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1812.)

That use also predates the first attestation in OED Online purported to be "directly illustrative" of the theatrical sense (5a), a quote from 1824 that refers to a star of pugilism:

1824 Compl. Hist. Murder Mr. Weare 219 Carter..was at a loss for a star in the pugilistic hemisphere to produce him a crowded house.

I did not uncover any evidence that 'star' was applied to the divas of opera before its use for leading characters of the stage.


For your (2), regarding the earliest application of the phrase "a star is born" to artists, that application seems to have begun or at least to have first become common with the release of the 1937 movie, A Star is Born. The script for the popular romantic drama starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric Marsh was written by William Wellman, Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker, and Alan Campbell. The plot concerns a young actress and an older Hollywood actor who helped launch her career.

Here is Dorothy:

enter image description here

(From "To Richard--With Love", by Dorothy Parker, reprinted from The Screen Guilds' Magazine, May 1936, in Celebrity Articles from the Screen Guild Magazine, Anna Kate Sterling, Scarecrow Press, 1987.)

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The term "star" was used in Vaudeville. Presumably, as all of those Vaudevillians, like the Barrymores, the Marxes, W.C. Fields, Mae West, etc., segued to the silver screen after the turn of the century, they brought their terms with them and Hollywood adopted the nomenclature and film "stars" were born--along with the stars on Hollywood Boulevard's walk-of-fame. Whereas the term "star" got adopted into film and so today's pop culture via Vaudeville, if as you say the term dates back to 1824, then "star" predates Vaudeville by about 40 years because Vaudeville only rose out of the ashes of the Civil War, out of a largely displaced and largely transient America. I would probably look for the beginnings of the word somewhere in New York.

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In answer to your first question the OED is illustrative:

[1779 J. Warner in J. H. Jesse G. Selwyn & his Contemp. (1844) IV. 30 The little stars, who hid their diminished rays in his [Garrick's] presence, begin to abuse him.]

1824 Compl. Hist. Murder Mr. Weare 219 Carter..was at a loss for a star in the pugilistic hemisphere to produce him a crowded house.

The second example from 1824 is presumably the one to which you have referred.

The earlier entry, from 1779, it will be noted is placed in square brackets. Those indicate that whilst the entry provides evidence of the possible development of the sense, it is not entirely illustrative of it.

It is thus interesting that in the days of Garrick, reference to the smaller performers around him had been that of "little stars, who hid their diminished rays in his [great] presence" . Could this therefore have something to do with the origin of star performer as an expression?

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