pseudo-etymology of "news"

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Thu Dec 20 21:59:10 UTC 2007

FWIW, my experience is that people like to use the plural when their experience is with the the singular only.  If the compass story is not a complete invention, it may have actually been used by _a_ newspaper and noticed by person(s) who then had the original etymythobrainstorm(s).

  Note that I'm referring to the existence of the compass symbol, not the validity of the folk etymology.

  Similar phenomenon: "My grandpa used to say, [etc.]" when in fact he only said it on one memorable occasion.


Benjamin Zimmer <bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU> wrote:
  ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
Sender: American Dialect Society
Poster: Benjamin Zimmer
Subject: Re: pseudo-etymology of "news"

On Dec 20, 2007 12:25 PM, George Thompson 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

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