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Quiet amusement is being felt by those of us who keep an eye on the vocabulary of the British newspaper industry. In recent weeks, the Times and the Independent have been experimenting with smaller formats and it looks as though their success may lead other newspapers to emulate them.

There has long been a cultural divide in the British press. To paraphrase the view of the culturati of our country: the big-format broadsheet ones, like the Telegraph, Times and Guardian, are serious and responsible papers that appeal to an intelligent and cultured audience, while the smaller-format tabloid ones, especially the Sun and Daily Star, are for people who move their lips while reading and who are only interested in sex and sensationalism.

The distaste of many opinion-formers for the tabloids may in part be ill-informed and misguided, but it’s a potent force. So when the Independent brought out a tabloid-sized version in September and the Times followed suit in November, what were they to call the format? The Independent came up with compact, which may have the disadvantage of confusing the paper with something in a woman’s handbag or a disc you listen to, but which avoided the dreaded T-word.

Objections to tabloid started a century ago. It’s a rare example of an invented word that made it big, rather too much so for its inventor, Henry Wellcome. He went into partnership in 1878 with his fellow American Silas Burroughs to set up a pharmaceutical business in London. They needed a word for the highly compressed pills that his firm produced. Tablet wouldn’t serve, as it was a much older term (literally a little table) that had been used since the sixteenth century to mean any kind of solid dry medicine made up in small flat rectangles. Wellcome created tabloid from tablet plus the ending -oid that meant “having the form or likeness of”; this was registered as a trademark in 1884. As well as drugs, the company used the brand name for other products, such as photographic chemicals and tea (though presumably not sold in tablet form).

The problem came near the end of the century when people started to use the word for anything of compressed compass, for example for the Daily Mail, a newspaper in half-pint format that had been first published in May 1896 under the slogan “The penny newspaper for one halfpenny”. This was the precursor of all modern tabloids, with an emphasis on short stories simply told, on sport and human interest topics, and with the innovation of a women’s page. The first recorded use of tabloid for this style of journalism is from the very beginning of the twentieth century, from the Westminster Gazette of 1 January 1901.

In 1903, Burroughs Wellcome sued Thompson and Capper, a Manchester firm, for using their trademark without permission. In its defence, that firm pointed out that tabloid was by then widely used, mentioning recent issues of Punch, Tatler, Nature, and the Daily Mirror (another tabloid, founded that year), which had employed phrases such as “opera in tabloid”, “tabloid melodrama”, “knowledge in tabloid form”, “tabloid missives” and “modern art in tabloid”. Burroughs Wellcome, it was argued, had thereby lost all rights to tabloid and that the action was “an attempt on the part of the plaintiff to prevent the proper development of the English language”. Burroughs Wellcome won; the judge agreed that the word had indeed acquired a secondary sense of “a compressed form or dose of anything”, but that it didn’t interfere with the firm’s trademark rights.

These days, of course, the sense of a type of tablet has long since passed out of use and tabloid refers solely to a small-format popular newspaper. Except, of course, when it’s a broadsheet in disguise.

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Page created 03 Jan 2004