Yellow Journalism

Wed Jul 31 23:33:37 UTC 2013

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 make of this earlier variant on the phrase?  (Spoiler alert:  I'm going to argue that the Yellow Kid's role is overblown.)

The earlier example is from the (Bangor, Maine) Whig & Courier, Oct. 11, 1883, 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 election," before anybody had the slightest idea of the result in that State, the Central street paper retorts by characterizing us as "the old dried up and disgruntled WHIG, "the muddled WHIG," etc., and says the people who bought the _Commercial_ "did not expect to find a complete statement of the result before the votes were counted." Still, it was considered by its proprietors an "enterprising" thing to have their paper hawked about the street and imposed upon the public as containing a "full report" of an election, "before," 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 journalism.  A recent issue of the Boston _Post_ furnishes so apt an illustration and so authoritative a proclamation of the peculiar idea upon which the _Commercial_ is conducted, that we are tempted to quote some pertinent extracts.  In its editorial column, the _Post_, although a strongly Democratic paper, feels compelled to plainly and vigorously denounce the disgraceful, pictorial 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 with "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 literature.' 'Now, look here,' said the publisher, 'I know more about this business than you do.  I HAVE FIGURED THIS THING ALL OUT and I find that where one of my patrons wants a higher toned book and a higher toned paper, 20 OF THEM PREFER THE YELLOW COVERED BOOKS AND THE SENSATIONAL STORY PAPER.' It's just so with Butler's Tewksbury work; where one person would prefer that 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 of 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" enterprise, there are some old-fashioned publishers of newspapers who are not willing to put a mortgage on their souls by peddling out their self-respect and manhood 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-covered literature" as "trashy or sensational fiction, periodicals, etc.: in allusion to the form in which such matter was formerly commonly issued."  Similarly, Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913) defines "yellow-covered literature" as "cheap sensational novels and trashy magazines; -- formerly 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 & Courier 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 believe it does, however, illuminate the term's history.  It seems to me that when Ervin Wardman referred to "yellow-kid journalism," he was not inventing a wholly new phrase, but instead making a play on words with "yellow-covered literature" and the well-known Yellow Kid.  In other words, "yellow journalism" is not so-called because of the Yellow Kid, but follows directly from the earlier "yellow-covered" books/literature.

John Baker

The American Dialect Society -

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