How newspapers got their names

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Nowadays, reporters have ways of getting their stories almost as soon as they happen. Centuries ago, news travelled at an entirely different pace. But remarkably, several words originally used in connection with the gathering and dissemination of news are still with us.

In 2012, the reporter juggles his various gadgets to connect to a wide range of sources. In 1512, the person gathering news tracked down travelers, foreign merchants, intelligence agents and foreign ambassadors in marketplaces or inns to question them about happenings in faraway places. In 2012, the news is relayed with a finger's touch. In 1512, the news was written up by hand (quill pen, ink, paper) as a series of extensive headlines and sent to the newsgatherer's employer.

In Italy, a handwritten news item was called an "avviso," which translates as notification or advertisement. Initially, only the rich could afford personal newsgatherers. Ordinary people had to rely on the towncrier or word of mouth.

By the mid sixteenth century, anyone could subscribe to a news service, paying a fee per handwritten item. Not long afterwards, printing presses were turning out single sheets of news, called broadsheets, for purchase from a street vendor.

As the appetite for news grew, ways had to be found to speed up the transmission of information — late news was bad news. The Holy Roman Empire, which included most of Europe in the sixteenth century, developed such an efficient postal service that its riders could cover as many as 166 kilometres a day. In France, a rider who carried the post was known as a courier.

By the seventeenth century, printed news was available in most European countries, usually published once a week. The names of these publications often related to the ways in which news had been collected and distributed.

Notwithstanding centuries of development in the news reporting industry, many titles of newspapers continue to preserve the historic terms. For instance, the name of Toronto's "National Post" refers to the early European system — the post — for conveying news messages from one destination to another. The title of the "Vancouver Courier" harks back to the French word for the despatch rider carrying the post. Some newspapers take their titles from the words for people who once upon a time delivered news, such as the "Calgary Herald," a herald being the person carrying messages between royal courts. Mercury, the messenger of the gods in ancient Roman mythology, has also lent his name to newspapers, for instance Ontario's "Guelph Mercury." And the nineteenth-century ancestor of "The Vancouver Sun" was known as "The Advertiser," a name that relates directly to the word "avviso" (advertisement) used in sixteenth-century Italy for a handwritten news report.

Another popular name for newspapers, gazette, as in the "Montreal Gazette," can claim a slightly different origin. "Gazeta" was what seventeenth-century Venetians called their printed news sheet because it sold for one "gazeta" (a low denomination coin).

Will newspaper titles of the future continue to preserve the old? Or will they leap into the present with names like the "Montreal Mouse" or "Calgary Click"? But most likely in the future, even mouse and click will be considered historic terms — because by then the computer and internet will surely have become quaint relics of the past.

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This page last updated: March 21, 2012.