Dear Cecil: A friend and I were wondering where the common suffix "-arama,” as in “foodarama” or “motorama,” comes from. What does it mean, if anything? Kimberly J., Baltimore
The suffix “-arama,” as we know it today, is one of many queasy cultural relics from the 50s and early 60s, along with blond wood furniture, Capri pants, and the beehive hairdo. Originally it derived from “panorama” (from the Greek pan, all, plus horama, view), a word invented in 1789 or so by one Robert Barker to describe his invention, a type of painting showing a wide-angle view of some notable scene. (According to “Ripley’s Believe it or Not,” not normally one of my top sources of etymological insight, Barker’s paintings were 50 feet high, up to three miles long, and weighed up to 8,000 pounds.)
Later the panorama was joined by the diorama. The latter inspired an -arama fad of sorts, as depicted in Balzac’s 1834 novel Old Goriot, which opens in 1819:
The diorama, a recent invention, which carried an optical illusion a degree further than panoramas, had given rise to a mania among art students for ending every word with rama. The Maison Vauquer had caught the infection from a young artist among the boarders. Well, Monsieur-r-r Poiret, said the employé from the Museacute;um, how is your health-orama? … There is an uncommon frozerama outside! said Vautrin. … Aha! here is a magnificent soupe-au-rama, cried Poiret as Christophe came in bearing the soup with cautious heed. I beg your pardon, sir, said Mme. Vauquer; it is soupe aux choux. All the young men roared with laughter.
So you can see, -arama has been inspiring world-class creativity for a long time. In the 1840s and subsequently we find mention of something called a “cyclorama,” which was a panorama mounted inside a cylinder, with the spectator standing in the center.
By the end of the 19th century panorama, and the suffix -arama in general, had come to be attached to any wide angle depiction of the great outdoors. The artist William Henry Holmes, for example, painted nine panoramas of the Grand Canyon and other scenes from the American West that were published in 1882 in the “Tertiary History of the Grand Canyon District.” These beautifully detailed paintings have been described as “the highest point to which geographical or topographical illustration ever reached in this country.”
In 1897 the French inventor Grimoin-Sanson patented an idea he called “cine’orama.” He proposed to film a 360 degree aerial view of Paris using 10 cameras mounted on a balloon floating over the city. Later 10 movie projectors would recreate the scene for the entertainment of earthbound spectators, who would take it in from a full-size mockup of the balloon. The only drawback was that, given the fire hazard created by the movie equipment of the day, 10 projectors were pretty much guaranteed to burn down the theater. The cine’orama plan was never carried out. Still, you could see where people were going with this -arama/-orama concept.
That was pretty much it as far as vocabulary building was concerned until 1939, when the famous designer Norman Bel Geddes unveiled the Futurama exhibit at the General Motors pavilion of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. In Futurama, spectators sat in moving seats that conveyed them past a 36,000-square-foot miniature environment depicting cities, towns, mountains, valleys, lakes, etc., all connected by a futuristic highway system. (Hey, it was the General Motors exhibit, after all.) The exhibit’s incredible detail helped make it a huge success and it paved the way, so to speak, for the interstate highway program of the Eisenhower era.
Another exhibit at the 1939 fair was Democracity, a miniature city (they were big on miniatures in 1939) constructed in the spherical Perisphere building. Spectators viewed the city from a revolving elevated platform. At the climax of the show, panoramic scenes of striding workers in the city of the future and so on were projected on the spherical interior of the Perisphere using the 11 projectors of the Vitarama system–they had dealt with the problem of burning down the theater by then.
Vitarama led to Cinerama, which arrived in 1952. This was the beginning of a veritable thunderstorm of “-aramas.” At first it was restricted to widescreen movie processes; later it came to signify any long, expensive entertainment spectacular, and later still it was applied to virtually any commercial enterprise that looked like it could stand a little goosing, e.g., Liquorama, formerly Al’s Tap. The usage has since gone into decline, mercifully, but you still see it around sometimes, usually in places where they use the word “mod” to describe anything that’s happened since 1965.
Now -arama even has its own Web site. (Are you surprised?) Lovingly put together by Howie Green and Robin Worth, the site displays a vast–dare I say panorama?–of -aramas and -oramas from across the U.S. Definitely worth a look at www.hgd.com/goofy/orama.html.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.