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Newspapers and briefcases: vestigial words in today’s English

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Recent events in the UK involving the News of the World Sunday newspaper have prompted a great deal of discussion and turmoil regarding what is and is not the proper role of a newspaper in society. In particular, allegations of phone hacking have drawn great scrutiny and, as a result of the public outcry the paper has just published its last issue this past week. This story is very interesting, especially to members of competing newspapers; from a lexicographic perspective, however, what is more interesting is the changing nature of the word newspaper.

The first recorded citation the OED has for newspaper is in 1667, and since that time the word has had a remarkably constant meaning (although it has also come to mean the typically cheap paper that the news is printed on, and had a brief career in the twentieth century as criminal slang for a prison term). This is still the primary meaning of the word, but it is not at all inconceivable that at some point in the not-so-distant future, as the Internet and various handheld reading devices become more advanced, that the newspaper will have no paper associated with it at all.  For how many of us does ‘taking a newspaper’ actually mean reading it online? What will happen to this word if all our daily reading of the news is done on computers? Will we simply call it ‘the news’? Or will we continue to refer to the publications that we access on touch screens as ‘the paper’, retaining the vestigial form of the word long after most readers have forgotten the gentle smudge of ink on finger. The latter seems likely, considering how many other vestigial words we have managed to retain.

Briefs and records

The ubiquitous briefcase was originally intended for a more narrow purpose than it is used for today – namely for a lawyer to carry legal briefs. Yet as the word has expanded its meaning, we have unquestioningly retained the brief- aspect of it.

Few of us still listen to vinyl records, yet most of us are aware that they are referred to as LPs. The LP stands for ‘long-playing’, and it is a safe bet that few people have stopped to wonder what it is that the LP played longer than. And should we listen to these LPs (or any other format of music) on a stereo, we don’t get our etymological feathers ruffled if the stereo is not true to its roots, and fails to reproduce the music in surrounding, stereophonic quality.

We are awash in obsolete language and, for the most part, pay it no mind. When you consider that newspapers are published by a collective entity that is called ‘the press’, which is itself an antiquated term (it has been some while since any of these newspapers were actually produced through a printing press), it seems not at all unlikely that this word will stick with us for quite some time to come, no matter whether the news is printed via ink on newspaper or via pixels on a screen.


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