ODO defines subtitles as both

A subordinate title of a published work or article giving additional information about its content.


Captions displayed at the bottom of a cinema or television screen that translate or transcribe the dialogue or narrative.

The former is (I think) self-evident (sub in Latin means, among other things, under). For example, it is evident that a subtitle follows a title (e.g. in a book). However, I see no connection with the second definition. This is, why are captions called subtitles? Which is the origin of this association? According to the definition above, captions transcribe the main text of a script. Yet, you would not call the main text of a book its subtitles would you?

Neither the aforementioned dictionary, nor Wikisource, nor Wikipedia offer an explanation of the origin of this association.


2 Answers 2


According to etymonline.com


subtitle (n.) also sub-title, 1825, "subordinate or additional title, usually explanatory," in reference to literary works, from sub- "under" + title (n.). Applied to motion pictures by 1908. As a verb from 1858. Related: Subtitled.

  • 2
    But that explains only the normal subtitle under a title, not the movie captions.
    – NVZ
    Oct 4, 2017 at 18:49

The title of a movie generally appears in the middle of the screen. Sub-titles appear at the bottom of the screen, below the placement of the movie's title.

  • 3
    Umm.. not really what was asked for..
    – NVZ
    Oct 1, 2017 at 14:20
  • 3
    Is this a guess? Do you have a reference for this?
    – luchonacho
    Oct 1, 2017 at 14:32
  • It is not a guess. Anyone who has ever seen a movie with sub-titles knows from observation that the sub-titles almost invariably appear at the bottom of the screen whereas the movie's actual title almost never appears there. The OP is well aware that "sub" means below in Latin. Sub-titles in a movie normally appear below where the actual title of the movie normally appears. Oct 1, 2017 at 14:59
  • 2
    So you think sub title means below the title? My belief is that the text itself is the "title" and the sub indicates that it is shown at the bottom. As for why the text itself would be called a title maybe a hangover from the title cards shown in silent movies? Oct 1, 2017 at 16:08
  • @Martin You may be correct about silent movies although the dialogue screens were shown as distinct frames. But my point is not why "titles" is included in a noun denoting printed dialogue shown at the bottom of the screen. My point is why "sub" is included in that noun. Oct 1, 2017 at 16:17

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