Celebrity comes into English at the beginning of 17c from the Latin celebritas meaning ‘famous’, or ‘thronged’ (there is also cognate French célébrité). The apparently dominant meaning of celebrity for two centuries is unrelated to the etymological root of fame and concerned rather with the notion of large numbers of people gathered together. OED gives two meanings: ‘Due observance of rites and ceremonies; pomp, solemnity’; and ‘A solemn rite or ceremony, a celebration’. Both are now obsolete. It should be noted that both meanings have strong religious connotation, and it seems legitimate to ask whether these meanings contributed to our current usage of celebrity as marking a desperate seeking for the sacred in the profane. While there seem no traces of these archaic meanings in current usage, it might be argued that such connotations prompted the initial choice of this word to mark what is a recognizable contemporary phenomenon.
From 1600 we have a meaning that leans on the other side of the Latin root: ‘The condition of being much extolled or talked about’. But this meaning already has the ambivalence that is to mark major contemporary uses of the term, since OED concludes this definition by offering a pair of terms, famousness and notoriety, with very different meanings. The examples presented also stress the way in which celebrity is a double-edged term, giving with one hand (well-known) and taking away with the other (for specious reasons). The irony is mildly present in Johnson’s, “I did not find myself yet enriched in proportion to my celebrity” (1751), and with full and exemplary force in Arnold’s comment, “They [Spinoza’s successors] had celebrity. Spinoza has fame” (1863).
Current usage of celebrity meaning ‘a celebrated person, a public character’, is first attested in the OED in 1849. Aptly enough this first attestation captures celebrity’s constant ambiguity: ‘Did you see any of these “celebrities” as you call them?’ The quotation marks presumably call attention to both the novelty of the term and the fact that it confers a status which some think no status at all. OED has very few examples of this now dominant meaning (and all are from 19c). Although there are some draft OED additions from 2002, they concern the specific terms celebrity novel and celebrity novelist. This suggests that there may well be developments in meaning, particularly in the last 50 years, which will need to be investigated further in the next OED revision.
However, one can sketch out celebrity’s rise to fame. First and foremost it denotes a new form of social status that is dependent neither on rank or institutional achievement. This social status is dependent on the development of a public sphere largely, at least initially, through a popular press. Webster’s, unlike OED, finds celer, ‘swift’, in celebrity’s etymology; and there does seem to be an inbuilt notion of change and transformation. Today’s celebrity is tomorrow’s nobody. Today’s nobody is tomorrow’s celebrity. Such a notion of change seems fundamentally democratic; celebrity is a fame that everybody can enjoy. Warhol expressed this element of celebrity best with his most famous dictum that “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”.
This ‘world fame’ has a definite necessary condition: development of the photographic image. It is not simply that the modern newspaper creates a discursive realm which challenges status embodied in birth or traditional achievement. It is also that one can meet celebrities face to face. Indeed it might be possible to argue that celebrity in a modern sense is not a feature of 19c but of 20c, since the most famous celebrities are Hollywood film stars. It is also worth recalling that, in the early history of the movies, studios tried to limit the development of stars because of the economic power that stardom delivered to an actor. Yet audiences, who were able to see these actors close-up, decided that they liked some more than others and delivered that economic power accordingly. The most influential academic analysis of this phenomenon has undoubtedly been Horkheimer and Adorno’s. But for them celebrity and the star system are simply ‘a cult of personality’, in which the star stands in for the potential of the masses in a way that is deceiving and disabling. The trouble with this Frankfurt school analysis is that it ignores the very active role that audiences play in the creation of celebrities and for which Hollywood still functions as the most complex example.
Hollywood is also the place where entertainment and information first mix in modern terms. By the 1930s, Hollywood was the third largest news source in the country, with some 300 correspondents. It is revealing to consider why ‘stars’ are not called film celebrities. Star has none of the crucial ambiguity of celebrity. This ambiguity has intensified over the past decade, with the phenomenal success of ‘reality’ television. Now the commerce between celebrity and anonymity has become even more explicit. Nobodies become instant celebrities on Big Brother while on Celebrity Big Brother the reverse journey is undertaken.