Words: Tabloid

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COMPLAINTS that the BBC has been resorting to 'tabloid journalism' made me think what a long way the word tabloid has come since Messrs Burroughs, Wellcome & Co patented it 110 years ago for its wonderful range of medicines, whose healing powers could be compressed into a small pill. They must have been pleased with the impressive suffix, for the associations of oid (meaning 'having the form of') were then purely scientific. When Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe, used the word for his own purposes in 1901, they sued for breach of copyright, but they were on a losing wicket: the word had caught on, and was already being used of anything in compressed form.

Harmsworth's notion of it had little to do with page size - his Daily Mail was a broadsheet. He wanted to put as much information as possible into the smallest number of words (or as we would say, borrowing another term from the chemists, encapsulate it).

He made this clear on the front page of the New York World, which he guest-edited on New Year's Day 1901. He did indeed give it a small-page format, but that was by the way. His claim was that 'by my system of condensed or tabloid journalism hundreds of working hours can be saved each year. By glancing down the adjointed list of contents and following the arrangements of the pages the outline of the day's news can be gathered in 60 seconds'.

I am unsure when tabloid became a figurative word for sensationalism and sleaze - almost certainly by the 1920s. But it would be wrong to blame Harmsworth, who upbraided his editor at the Mirror for lowering standards.

So now the word carries two meanings, one indicating size of page, the other a vulgar style. Neither of them approaches the 1901 meaning which, as I say, was to do with brevity - something today's popular tabloids can hardly be accused of, with their multi-paged spreads ('See pages 6, 7, 8, 9 and 12') on the private lives of public figures.