Yellow Journalism

Wilson Gray hwgray at GMAIL.COM
Thu Aug 1 00:45:27 UTC 2013

On Wed, Jul 31, 2013 at 7:33 PM, Baker, John <JBAKER at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Baker, John" <JBAKER at STRADLEY.COM>
> Subject:      Yellow Journalism
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> It is generally accepted that the term "yellow journalism" came into use in=
>  or around early 1897 and derived its name from the Yellow Kid, a character=
>  in the comic strip Hogan's Alley in the New York World.  What, then, to ma=
> ke of this earlier variant on the phrase?  (Spoiler alert:  I'm going to ar=
> gue that the Yellow Kid's role is overblown.)
> The earlier example is from the (Bangor, Maine) Whig & Courier, Oct. 11, 18=
> 83, at 2, col. 1 (19th Century U.S. Newspapers).  The piece is too long to =
> quote in full, so I quote selectively.
> To a paragraph of ours expressing amusement that the _Commercial_ was cried=
>  on our streets Tuesday evening as having "A full account of the Ohio elect=
> ion," before anybody had the slightest idea of the result in that State, th=
> e Central street paper retorts by characterizing us as "the old dried up an=
> d disgruntled WHIG, "the muddled WHIG," etc., and says the people who bough=
> t the _Commercial_ "did not expect to find a complete statement of the resu=
> lt before the votes were counted." Still, it was considered by its propriet=
> ors an "enterprising" thing to have their paper hawked about the street and=
>  imposed upon the public as containing a "full report" of an election, "bef=
> ore," as itself acknowledges, "the votes were counted."
> There was nothing "old," or "dried up" about that sort of smartness, and it=
>  simply suggests the wide difference that prevails between some people and =
> some other folks in regard to what is proper and honest and decent in journ=
> alism.  A recent issue of the Boston _Post_ furnishes so apt an illustratio=
> n and so authoritative a proclamation of the peculiar idea upon which the _=
> Commercial_ is conducted, that we are tempted to quote some pertinent extra=
> cts.  In its editorial column, the _Post_, although a strongly Democratic p=
> aper, feels compelled to plainly and vigorously denounce the disgraceful, p=
> ictorial campaign pamphlet put forth by Governor Butler, which it declares =
> to be _"the vilest book that has ever been openly printed in the State,"_ .=
>  . . .
> [T]he news columns of the _Post_ of Tuesday, Oct. 9, contain an interview w=
> ith "Hon. Joseph P. Bass, of Bangor" . . . as follows:
> "What do you think about the Governor's picture book?"
> ". . . In my judgment the book will MAKE BUTLER LOTS OF VOTES.  You see the=
>  case is about as it was with a big publisher down in Maine.  Somebody said=
>  to him one day, 'Mr. ____, you are making a big mistake; you ought to hire=
>  some first class contributors and editors and get out a better class of li=
> terature.' 'Now, look here,' said the publisher, 'I know more about this bu=
> siness than you do.  I HAVE FIGURED THIS THING ALL OUT and I find that wher=
> e one of my patrons wants a higher toned book and a higher toned paper, 20 =
> t's just so with Butler's Tewksbury work; where one person would prefer tha=
> t the pictures be left out and the text amended there are 20 who would say =
> give us the whole story and along with it THE RATS, HIDES AND CORPSES. . . =
> ."
> A volume of comment would not suffice to portray more clearly the opinion o=
> f the _Commercial's_ manager as to the sort of literature which "will sell,=
> " and his complimentary view of the intelligence and taste of the public.  =
> It is perhaps fortunate that even in this age of "yellow covered" enterpris=
> e, there are some old-fashioned publishers of newspapers who are not willin=
> g to put a mortgage on their souls by peddling out their self-respect and m=
> anhood for pennies on the public streets.>>
> Note the reference to "yellow covered books" in the quotation from the Hon.=
>  Joseph P. Bass.  The Century Dictionary (1889 - 1891) defines "yellow-cove=
> red literature" as "trashy or sensational fiction, periodicals, etc.: in al=
> lusion to the form in which such matter was formerly commonly issued."  Sim=
> ilarly, Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913) defines "yellow-cove=
> red literature" as "cheap sensational novels and trashy magazines; -- forme=
> rly so called from the usual color of their covers."
> "Yellow journalism" became an extremely popular term shortly after its use =
> in or around January 1897 and, while the 1883 example from the Whig & Couri=
> er is striking for its use of "yellow-covered journalism" to have the same =
> meaning, I doubt if it played any role in the success of the term.  I belie=
> ve it does, however, illuminate the term's history.  It seems to me that wh=
> en Ervin Wardman referred to "yellow-kid journalism," he was not inventing =
> a wholly new phrase, but instead making a play on words with "yellow-covere=
> d literature" and the well-known Yellow Kid.  In other words, "yellow journ=
> alism" is not so-called because of the Yellow Kid, but follows directly fro=
> m the earlier "yellow-covered" books/literature.
> John Baker
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society -

I'm persuaded. IMO, the standard, "Yellow Kid" derivation makes no
sense. Not that it necessarily has to, of course. Sometimes, you
simply have to have been there.

All say, "How hard it is that we have to die!"---a strange complaint
to come from the mouths of people who have had to live.
-Mark Twain

The American Dialect Society -

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