- Jan 13, 1999
Interesting question that I never thought to ask before. I receive a newsletter that explores the linguistic origins of words and phrases, and this appeared in the Q&A section today:
Q. The previews of coming attractions in movie theaters are generally called "trailers", a term I have known from my childhood in the late 1930s. Why should they be called that? They do not trail behind the shows they are advertising; and (at least today) they invariably precede the main feature.
A. An intriguing question, and one which needs a little delving into the history of the cinema to answer. I have seen it argued in all seriousness that a movie "trailer" is analogous to the scent trail of a drag race, so trailing an advertisement before the audience in the expectation (or, at least, the hope) that it will be followed. But the real story is less fanciful. Back in the days when most film programmes were presented as double features, the piece of film advertising a forthcoming attraction was originally attached by the cinema projectionist to the end of the reel that contained the B feature or supporting film, so that it was shown between it and the main feature - so trailing the supporting film. These days, as you say, when cinemas usually show just the one feature film, the advertisements for forthcoming attractions have to be run before it to ensure a captive audience, so making the name puzzlingly inaccurate. It's more of a technological fossil than a linguistic one.
Seems like a reasonable response that makes sense. Does anyone have any other explanations?