Celebrity comes into English at the beginning of C15 from Latin celebritās meaning “fame,” or “the state of being busy or crowded” (there is also the related French célébrité). Two important early meanings recorded by OED are: “Observance of ritual or special formality on an important occasion; pomp, ceremony” (C15) and “An act of celebrating something; a rite, a ceremony; a celebration.” Both are now obsolete, but survived as late as C19. It should be noted that both meanings have strong religious connotations, and it is 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 feature in contemporary life.
More familiar is another meaning also first recorded in C15, “The state or fact of being well known, widely discussed, or publicly esteemed.” As OED notes, this has gradually developed some much more specific connotations, “personal fame or renown as manifested in (and determined by) public interest and media attention.” The first edition of the OED ended its equivalent definition by offering a pair of near synonyms, 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 Samuel Johnson’s, “I did not find myself yet enriched in proportion to my celebrity” (1751), and with full and exemplary force in Matthew Arnold’s comment, “They [Spinoza’s successors] had celebrity. Spinoza has fame” (1863). OED further observes in a note, “In early use frequently synonymous with fame, but later often distinguished as referring to a more ephemeral condition . . . , or as associated with popular as opposed to high culture.”
Current usage of celebrity meaning “[a] well-known or famous person” is first attested in the OED in 1831; its subsequent development is sketched by OED with “(now chiefly) spec. a person, esp. in entertainment or sport, who attracts interest from the general public and attention from the mass media.” An early attestation from 1849 aptly 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.
One can sketch out celebrity’s rise to fame. First and foremost it denotes a new form of social status that depends neither on rank nor institutional achievement. This social status depends on the development of a public sphere largely, at least initially, through a popular press. It is also subject to rapid change: 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. Andy Warhol expressed this element of celebrity best with his most famous dictum that “[i]n the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”
This “world fame” has a definite necessary condition: 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 C19 but of C20, since the most famous celebrities are Hollywood film stars. 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 could see these actors up close decided that they liked some more than others and delivered that economic power accordingly. The most influential academic analysis of this process has been Horkheimer and Adorno’s. But for them, celebrity and the star system are simply “a cult of personality,” in which the star deceptively stands in for the potential of the masses. This Frankfurt School analysis, however, ignores the very active role that audiences play in the creation of celebrities, for which Hollywood still functions as the most complex example.
Hollywood is also 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, as nobodies become instant celebrities on Big Brother while on Celebrity Big Brother the reverse journey is undertaken.