Wordsmith Julian Burnside explains the meaning of the word "tabloid":
"The 23 April, 1884 issue of the Trade Marks Journal.included a note that Burroughs, Wellcome & Company had been registered as proprietor of the trade name Tabloid, for use in connection with Chemical substances not included in Class I, used in Medicine and Pharmacy.  The word was an invented one, derived from tablet, with the familiar -oid suffix.  It was used to describe and label tablets which were relatively small, and contained a  concentrated dose of the relevant drug.

The new format was popular, and the word quickly came to be understood outside its field of origin.  It came to be used by others, and Burroughs Wellcome sued.  The Court of Appeal held that the word had acquired a secondary meaning outside pharmacology.  Byrne J said: "The word Tabloid has become so well-known in consequence of the use of it by the Plaintiff firm in connection with their compressed drugs that I think it has acquired a secondary sense in which it has been used and may legitimately be used so long as it does not interfere with their trade rights. I think the word has been so applied generally with reference to the notion of a compressed form or dose of anything." (see re Burroughs Wellcome & Co's Trade Mark, (1904) 21 RPC 217)).

Meanwhile, in 1894, the Harmsworth brothers (Alfred and Harold, later Lord Northcliffe and Lord Rothermere respectively) bought a failing newspaper, the London Evening News, and revised its contents by ensuring that news items were short and easily digested.  They then established the Daily Mail, which was first published on 4 May 1896.  It was advertised as "The penny newspaper for one halfpenny" and "The busy man's daily journal".  Its style was short and to the point.  What it lacked in depth, it made up in brevity.  It became very successful.  The style of newspaper pioneered by the Harmsworth brothers was quite soon referred to as "tabloid news".

Tabloid has no current use other than in connection with the style of journalism pioneered by the Harmsworth brothers.  It is used to describe the format of a newspaper, as well as the style of journalism generally found in those newspapers.  It is also used to describe television and radio journalism which is superficial or sensational.  Strangely, its true signification today is the opposite of what was originally intended, since the news dosage in tabloid journalism is not only not concentrated, but diluted to almost homeopathic levels.

I imagine that, if the word were used today to refer to a tablet, people would think it an odd misuse of the word.  By a curious symmetry, Alfred Harmsworth's first venture into journalism was a small gossip sheet which carried innocuous items of social news.  It was called Tit Bits.  He probably did not realise just how close he had come to the early 21st century meaning of tabloid journalism."


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