The Compulsive Copyeditor

January 30, 2010

You Never Know Where That Word Has Been!

Filed under: Uncategorized — amba12 @ 5:04 pm

TABLOID. You hear it and you think sleazy paparazzi, exposé journalism, tattling for cash. The word itself sounds tacky, phony, and creepy — the “-oid” suffix connotes something that resembles the form of something else but isn’t it, is a little off:  an “android” is a lifelike robot, and a “tabloid” is a newspaperlike scandal sheet. Like a man in a dirty tan raincoat you know you could catch a disease just by standing next to, the word “tabloid” makes you feel the cheap black ink come off on your hands.

Yet you probably know that “tabloid,” applied to a publication, originally meant simply the smaller-format, easier-to-read, workingman’s newspaper that didn’t have an aristocratic fold for infra dig stories to be dismissed below.  Unlike broadsheets, tabloids were democratic, both socially and psychologically:  they had no “upstairs, downstairs.”  No one’s sordid doings were off limits, and the natural human interest in sordid doings was itself lifted up out of the dark basement of the psyche and given space to accord with its power.  If “humiliate” literally means to bring the high and mighty down to earth (humus), the tabs weren’t going to wait for death to do it.  They were the great levelers.

The associations that attach to a word are, of course, in large part a matter of chance and free association, picked up on the word’s seed-on-the wind, tool-passed-from-hand-to-hand travels (though sound plays a nonrandom role).  Only retroactively, through use, do those flavors of experience and milieu become part of the word’s aura.  Yet they are so vivid to our brains that they seem natural, necessary, and permanent.  It’s unsettling to discover how far a word has traveled to arrive at its seemingly self-evident place in our world.  If asked to speculate on “TABLOID”‘s derivation, I ‘d have proposed “tablet,” in the sense of a stone or clay slab with markings incised on it.  I found out by accident yesterday where the word really comes from.  I would never have guessed.


When Silas Burroughs invited Henry Wellcome to join him in business in London in 1879, modern drug production was an undeveloped field. …

Over 20 years previously, the British artist and explorer William Brockedon, exasperated by the poor quality of the graphite in the pencils he used for his sketches, had invented a mechanised method of crushing graphite to a fine powder then compressing it to produce better-quality lead. In 1843, he was granted a patent for his invention, and the drug firm John Wyeth and Brother hired him to make compressed medicines using the same technique.

The compressed pills made by Brockedon’s machine offered a much safer, standardised dose than medicines prepared by pestle and mortar, and soon became popular. Other American manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon and attempted to improve production methods. …

Across the Atlantic, things were very different. There were few manufacturing drug companies in England, very few medicines were produced on a large scale, and pharmacists still used the traditional, time-consuming and less precise pestle-and-mortar method to prepare medicines. …

Here was a virgin market, and Burroughs – who was Wyeth’s sole agent in London and had been importing and marketing pharmaceuticals since 1878 – realised that he might be able to make his fortune by importing the compressed pills and marketing them in England and Europe. He wrote to Wellcome to invite him to join the venture. …

Heavy stamp duty on imports from America made importing the pills costly, so the partners took another novel step – at a time when there were few manufacturing pharmacists in Britain – in deciding to manufacture their own pills.

In 1883, they purchased their first factory at Bell Lane Wharf in Wandsworth, and Wellcome bought the machinery needed for making compressed medicine tablets from Wyeth in America to produce pills for the British and European markets. By 1882 Burroughs Wellcome & Co. were up and running as drug manufacturers, and by his 30th birthday Wellcome was a wealthy man.

The company’s compressed drugs were an instant success in Britain, and Burroughs and Wellcome soon needed a bigger factory. They purchased the Phoenix Paper Mills site at Dartford, and used Thames barges for transport. This site remained the firm’s production centre until the 1980s.

In 1888, frustrated by the limitations of Wyeth’s machine, which was slow and unreliable, Wellcome put together a team of engineers to design a better one. The result was machinery that could produce 600 compressed pills per minute, each pill bearing an unprecedented standard of precision and giving Burroughs Wellcome & Co. a clear lead over their competitors.

The British competition soon woke up to the success of Burroughs Wellcome & Co., and other manufacturers began to make imitations of compressed convenience products.

To eliminate the competition, in 1884, Wellcome registered as a trademark one of the most famous and powerful brand names in business history, ‘Tabloid’ – a word he coined by blending the words ‘tablet’ and ‘alkaloid’ – to denote his firm’s pills.

Over the next few years Burroughs Wellcome & Co. fought and won legal battles to prevent other firms using the same name. In 1904 Burroughs Wellcome & Co. v. Thompson & Capper made history as the ‘Tabloid’ case. The prosecution argued that doctors prescribed ‘tabloid’ products because they had faith in the purity and accuracy of Burroughs Wellcome & Co products. And the judge ruled that ‘tabloid’ specifically referred to the products of that firm.

Not only did the ‘Tabloid’ brand name prevent the competition from taking a slice of the market, its associations with quality and precision also made it an effective marketing tool. The name was applied to the full range of the company’s products, including ‘Tabloid’ first aid kits and medicine chests, the ‘Tabloid’ photographic developer and even ‘Tabloid’ Tea.

The term has now passed into general use to mean anything in compact form, in particular a ‘condensed’ newspaper format. But it is still technically the property of Burroughs Wellcome & Co.



  1. …had invented a mechanised method of crushing graphite to a fine powder then compressing it to produce better-quality lead.

    Did you know that graphite is/was also known as plumbago? It’s easy to guess the origin of that one.

    First, thanks for making look up the family history of William S. Burroughs. I thought that he might have sprung from that Burroughs family (he was an heir to a small fortune from the invention of a machine, but not that one).

    These word origin stories are always fun and I’m instantly drawn to them when you post them. This one speaks for itself. What strikes my interest this time is the notion that terms are technically owned in perpetuity by the originator. I’m not a trademark attorney and so I can’t opinion with authority on this. I do know a few TM attorneys and I’m going look into this. I believe that there are “terms” involved (ha ha that’s a good pun) meaning that one owns the term (or technically can prevent others from using it) only for a specified length of time (term), subject to reasonable renewals. I know that patents are strictly subject to terms. The Patent and Trademark Office (a branch of the Commerce Department) was established to encourage the dissemination of knowledge to the general public as well to encourage innovation, and not just to enable monopolies forever (though it seems that way at times).

    Perhaps you know something about copyright terms?

    Comment by El Pollo Real — January 30, 2010 @ 6:22 pm | Reply

    • “75 years” is what comes to mind when I think “copyright term.” Unless renewed? Or including renewal? Not sure. If not renewed, it goes into public domain. That’s “raw,” without help from Google.

      So what was Wm. Burroughs’ fortune attributable to? The Remington typewriter, or the adding machine? Was it the adding machine?

      Have been online working or else sleeping; need to work out, clean house, spend some time in IRL, IOW, so am resisting the temptation to dive back in just now.

      Comment by amba12 — January 30, 2010 @ 7:08 pm | Reply

    • btw, I did ask a trademark attorney about terms. They last 10 years and must be renewed (for a fee of course). They can be extended in perpetuity, but will lapse if not commercially “worked” or used for a variable period of 3 to five years. Sort of a use it or lose scenario.

      Comment by El Pollo Real — February 3, 2010 @ 9:46 pm | Reply

      • So in other words, the word “tabloid” is NOT really the property of (erstwhile) Burroughs Wellcome (now GlaxoSmithKline or whatever) anymore.

        Comment by amba — February 3, 2010 @ 10:10 pm

  2. Yes, it was the adding machine. The Burroughs family of St. Louis were well-to-do. After Wm. finished college, he started receiving a monthly stipend that allowed him not to work. Other Beats resented this (I recall this from an Allen Ginsberg bio). Still, he managed to screw-up his life: cf. his “accidental” shooting of his wife, and the sad tragic death of his son. Wow, I just went way off OT.

    Comment by El Pollo Real — January 31, 2010 @ 12:07 am | Reply

  3. If it has no further commercial value to them (and I suspect that they no longer sell “tabloid”) then yes, I’ll bet they let it go. They have plenty of other trademarks to protect.

    Comment by El Pollo Real — February 3, 2010 @ 11:38 pm | Reply

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