The other night, Jay Leno made some joke using the word "footage." He said something like, "Think of all the footage they must have of that stuff." The word struck me as strange, maybe because I hadn't heard it in a while. So I decided to find out where the term came from.
- Various online dictionaries offer a couple definitions, which shed some light on the origin of the word. They don't give an exact picture of the evolution of the word, but I think I've been able to piece it together.
- Based on the word "foot" as a unit of measurement, "footage" generally refers to the rate by which one charges for the amount of work done.
- As far as I can tell, the concept of charging by the foot for things published was first used by people who cut leather to cover books. They cut it by the foot, but it was a pretty complicated process because usually the edges of the leather were not nice and straight but curvy and ragged, so measuring had to be pretty precise, and excess had to be trimmed away.
- When film came along, the term was used to describe a length of film. One defintion from 1916 suggests that a foot's worth of film corresponded to about a scene's worth of action.
- Now, of course, one scene probably takes up more than a foot of film, which may be why the word "footage" stopped referring to anything mathematically exact, but instead came to mean just about any size chunk of film.
OneLook quick definitions for "footage"
Online Etymology Dictionary "footage" entry
Etherington & Roberts Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology, Bookbinding and Conservation of Books, "footage"