pseudo-etymology of "news"

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Thu Dec 20 19:17:23 UTC 2007

On Dec 20, 2007 12:25 PM, George Thompson <george.thompson at> wrote:
> "Coincidentally to your newspaper quote about the spurious origin of
> "news", a reader wrote in to ask if this were really the origin. I propose
> to quote your find from the Morning Courier & New-York Enquirer of 23
> April 1842 in the piece (which is scheduled for 29 December) but wonder if
> you have more of the quotation available, preferably immediately before
> the bit you cited?"  Michael Quinion, Editor, World Wide Words
> So, here is the full 2 sentence text:
> Origin of the word "NEWS"  [the headline]  "News" is not, as many imagine, derived
> from the adjective "New".  In former times, it was a prevalent practice to put over the
> periodical publications of the day the initial letters of the cardinal points of the compass,
> thus: --
>             N
>             |
>     W---------E
>             |
>             S
> importing that these papers contained intelligence from the four quarters of the globe;
> and from this practice is derived the term of newspaper.
> Morning Courier & New-York Enquirer, April 23, 1842, p. 3, col. 2.

Note also that Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898), while
debunking this derivation, nonetheless suggests that the compass
points really did appear emblematically in newspapers.

The letters used to be prefixed to newspapers to show that they
obtained information from the four quarters of the world, and the
supposition that our word news is thence derived is at least
ingenious; but the old-fashioned way of spelling the word, newes, is
fatal to the conceit. The French nouvelles seems to be the real
source. (See NOTARICA.)
"News is conveyed by letter, word, or mouth,
And comes to us from North, East, West, and South."
Witt's Recreations.

More acroetymythology under the entry for "notarica":

--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society -

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