Last year (2017) the Guardian newspaper here in Blighty announced that it was moving from its existing Berliner format to tabloid form sometime in 2018, leaving just the Telegraph in a broadsheet format. There was a time when there was a clear divide between what were termed as the low-brow, populist papers which were in tabloid format and the broadsheet newspapers, which were more serious and respectable. As with most things, the desire for convenience and usability has won out but it did leave me wondering where the term tabloid came from. My investigations revealed an interesting story, worthy of many a column inch.
Firstly, it is a made-up word, the brain child of the pharmaceutical manufacturer, Henry Wellcome, who was searching for something to describe the highly compressed pills that his firm, established with Silas Burroughs in London in 1878, was producing. Tablet, which in a literal sense meant a small table, had been used since the 16th century to describe the sort of medicines which were made up as solid rectangular, dry packages. This was not good enough for Wellcome as he wanted to stand out from the crowd. Taking the root tabl- he added the suffix –oid which meant resembling, having the form of or the likeness of. So pleased was he of his neologism that Wellcome registered it as a trademark in 1884.
Wellcome’s problem was that his linguistic creation proved to be a bit too successful. In the following decade or so, tabloid began to be used in the vernacular to describe anything of a small, compressed nature. Innovations in the field of journalism saw the launch of the Daily Mail in May 1896, whose size was half that of a broadsheet, establishing what are now the commonly accepted dimensions for a tabloid. The Mail’s hallmark was a succession of news stories told in a simple and condensed style rather than using the grandiloquent prose of the longer established journals. The Daily Mirror soon followed suit.
Small newspapers with condensed articles soon earned the moniker of tabloids. On 1st January 1901, the Westminster Gazette gave its readership notice of a change of editorial policy, advising that “the proprietor intends to give in tabloid form all the news printed by other journals.” The term tabloid journalism was established.
These were unwelcome developments for Wellcome who decided to fight back in defence of his trademark, suing a Manchester firm, Thompson and Crapper, in 1903 for using the word tabloid without permission. Not unreasonably, in their defence, Thompson and Crapper pointed out that the word was now firmly ensconced in the nation’s vocabulary, citing such uses as opera in tabloid, knowledge in tabloid form, tabloid missives and so on. In other words, Wellcome had been victim of his own linguistic genius and by taking this unwarranted legal action was attempting to stifle the development of the noble English tongue.
Nevertheless, Wellcome won his case. While the judge agreed that the word had developed legs of its own and was now used in contexts that were outside of the Wellcome’s original conception and, indeed, had become an accepted description of something in a compressed form, nonetheless he upheld Wellcome’s right to enforce his trademark.
How times have changed. We would scratch our head to associate tabloid with a compressed form of pharmaceutical but would readily accept it as a noun to describe a small newspaper. Sometimes you can be too clever for your own good.