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The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) created the awards program in order to recognize outstanding achievement and to encourage excellence in all areas of film-making. The statuette was designed by Cedric Gibbons, art director for MGM studios, and was sculpted by George Stanley. The statuette is that of a knight standing on a reel of film with his hands gripping a sword. Ironically, Gibbons received the award 11 times out of 39 nominations, second only to Walt Disney who won 26 times. The statuette's nickname of Oscar has unknown origins. However, the most common story is that of AMPAS librarian Margaret Herrick commenting that it resembled her Uncle Oscar. The AMPAS official name for the statuette is the Academy Award. The most popular story about the name's origin involves then Academy librarian and future executive director, Margaret Herrick. The story goes that Herrick, upon seeing the statuette sitting on a table exclaimed "it looks just like my Uncle Oscar!" The name stuck and it has been called by that name ever since.

Another common story involves actress and two-time Academy Award winner Bette Davis, who reportedly named it after her ex-husband, Harmon Oscar Nelson, Jr. Columnist Sidney Skolsky, perhaps the first to use the name in print, claimed that the name came from an old music hall joke, "Will you have a cigar, Oscar?"

Although we don't know the name's true origin, we do know that it quickly gained popularity. In 1934 Hollywood reporter Sidney Skolsky used the name in reference to Katherine Hepburn's win that year. Walt Disney is also reported to have called it by that name in the same year at the Awards ceremony. By 1939 the Academy itself was using the name officially.

No one knows for sure. Bette Davis, who won two Academy Awards during her career, reportedly said the statuette reminded her of her first husband, bandleader Harmon Oscar ("Ham") Nelson. There also is a story that Margaret Herrick, the librarian and director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, once said that the award looked just like her Uncle Oscar.