The particular meaning of this word I have in mind is not what the OED terms “Films or movies collectively; films or movies considered as an industry, art form, or type of entertainment.” (E.g, “Bergman is a master of cinema.”) This has been in common use among arty types in the U.S. for a very long time.

Nor am I referring to a meaning that I believe common in Britain but which I haven’t heard in the U.S. It’s the equivalent of our “the movies” — “I love going to the cinema on a rainy afternoon:

Rather, I’m thinking of a cinema as a place where you go to watch movies. The OED quotes a headline from The Sun: “Top films coming to a cinema near you this summer.” As the dictionary notes, “Movie theatre [sic] is the more common term in North America.” That would be joined by “movie house” and, more recently, “multiplex.”

But I’ve been hearing this cinema-as-place a fair amount on National Public Radio, and a good number of uses show up when I search the NPR website. For example, this from a July 28 report on virus restrictions in the District of Columbia: “Theaters, cinemas and entertainment venues can apply for a waiver to host arts, entertainment or cultural events.” And, the day before, this from host Ari Shapiro on new drive-in movies: “Pop-up cinemas are, well, popping up.”

Meanwhile, New York Times movie reviews now note they will be playing at “virtual cinemas.”

Google Books Ngram Viewer confirms the sense of British predominance (though the term declined in popularity from about 1950-1980), with Americans starting to close the gap in the 1980s.

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Looking just at American books, the data shows “cinema” more or less neck-and neck with  “movie theater” since the ’80s.  (The chart does somewhat overstate the popularity of “cinema” because it omits “theater” by itself; that is, if you were going to the movies with someone you might say, “I’ll meet you at the theater at 3.” For pretty obvious reasons, I didn’t include “a theater” in the search.)

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The change makes sense. “Movie theatre theater” and “movie house” are both kind of clunky, and “cinema” sounds classy, always a good thing. The only trouble is, who knows if there’ll even be cinemas anymore?

18 thoughts on ““Cinema”

  1. “I love going to the cinema on a rainy afternoon”
    In this context the word “cinema” refers to the establishment that shows “films” (not “movies”) – it is the equivalent of “I love going to the movie theatre on a wet weekend”.

  2. I notice you are slipping in and out of spelling it ‘theater’ and ‘theatre’. Noah Webster will be turning in his grave!

  3. I’ve always found the US usage “playing in a theater near you” odd because for me, the default UK meaning of theatre is a place where live actors act on a stage.

    So, if an American said, “I’m going to the theatre” would you immediately think they were going to the cinema, going to the live theatre, or would they always use a qualifier?

    1. Paul, it depends. “I enjoy going to the theater” means attending plays with live actors. But if, say, you had arranged with a friend to see a movie and said, “I’m going to the theater now,” you would mean the movie house. If you were seeing “Hamlet,” you would mean the theater in which the play was to be performed. “I’m going to the theater,” by itself with no context, means you’re going to see a play.

      1. OK, makes sense.
        Incidentally, in London there’s an art complex near Waterloo Station on the south bank of the Thames known as the South Bank. Between the concert halls and the National Theatre is a cinema which was called the National Film Theatre. Whether this got confused with the National Theatre I don’t know, but it’s now called BFI Southbank. (The BFI is the British Film Institute.)

  4. “Theatre” is the usual spelling here in Canada. I had always thought that “theater” was universal in the U.S. till a friend in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho took me to a chain movie house there that used the -re spelling. This was in 2004.

    1. And every one of them that I’ve been to in Canada has, I believe, had the word ‘Cinema’ in its name.

  5. I wonder if any other Americans would share the requirement that “cinema” can only apply to larger chains with multiple screens, as opposed to smaller independent theaters. I’m not sure I would ever “go to the cinema”, but I would use in sentences like, “they are building a huge cinema over there” or “smaller independent theaters have trouble competing against big cinemas”.

  6. When I was a mere child living in Scotland, we usually referred to the cinema as the place where we went to watch, “the pictures”.

      1. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone actually say that, but it’s the sort of thing you sometimes read in old books.

        I recall seeing the film The Smallest Show on Earth on TV in the sixties about a couple inheriting a run-down old cinema. It had Peter Sellers in it, and Margaret Rutherford as the cinema pianist, only she calls it a kinema, with a hard ‘k’.

  7. I’ve just been re-watching the classic British wartime film A Canterbury Tale and was reminded of this post in a scene where Eric Portman’s very English local bigwig Colpeper is telling an American army sergeant what to look out for in Canterbury. He wants to see a movie, but does know he should see the cathedral, to which Colpeper replies, “Yes do look out for it. It’s just behind the movie theatre. You can’t miss it.”

  8. In Scotland in the seventies it was always “”going to the pictures” but the building was always a cinema. These days more likely to say going to the cinema.

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