Q&A: The origin of “news”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we’re bringing yesterday's news…

Q: Hi AWC, can we talk about the news this week?

A: Do we have to? It’s all a bit much.

Q: No, you misunderstand. I mean the word “news” – where did it come from?

A: Ah! Okay then. Pull up a chair.

Q: I mean, I know it comes from “North, East, West, South” as in the points on a compass, but I was just wonderin–

A: STOP! Stop right there. 

Q: What’s happening?

A: We need to dispel that MYTH about the compass points. It’s what we call an “absurd folk etymology” – a false origin coined around the 1700s originally as a joke – that people have taken seriously over time. 

Q: So “news” has nothing to do with the compass points?

A: Nothing at all. It’s similar to people who think “golf” stands for “Gentleman Only, Ladies Forbidden”. 

Q: It doesn’t?

A: Nope. “Golf” was apparently derived from an old word for “club”.

Q: That story’s not as exciting.

A: English doesn’t care about flashy stories. And “news” is no exception. The actual fact is that it came from the plural of “new” – as in “new things”.

Q: How dull – not exactly front page news.

A: Exactly. It’s very dull indeed. Might get a small story on page 14 if it’s lucky.

Q: I guess it’s extremely obvious when you think about it. News is all about new things.

A: Yep. Today it’s regarded as singular, but for a long time right up until the 1800s, it was often referred to in plural form.

Q: How so?

A: Well today we’d say, “here is the news” – but back then they’d say, “here are the news”. 

Q: Well, that’s news to me.

A: Aha – that expression dates back to 1889 – relating to something you didn’t know.

Q: What about newspapers?

A: The word was first used in the 1660s, but the format had existed for decades before that, as “gazettes”. The term “newsletter” arrived in the 1670s and then disappeared until the 20th century. As for other newspaper related words, they took off in the 1800s, including news-agent, news-hound and news-stand.

Q: These are rather newsworthy facts.

A: Well, the adjective “newsworthy” dates back to 1932. Meanwhile, the radio/TV roundup wasn’t called the “news” until 1923.

Q: And the expression, “no news is good news”? That feels more modern.

A: Wrong. That one goes all the way back to the early 1600s and King James I of England, who allegedly said, “No news is better than evil news”.

Q: Jimmy Uno – telling it straight!

A: Um, yes.

Q: Okay, what about “bad news travels fast”?

A: This idea that people are quick to share bad things, while good stuff goes unreported turned up in the 1500s in various forms. But we can likely credit Charles Dickens for popularising it in his mid-19th century books, initially as “ill news travels fast”. 

Q: And why do we “break” the news? Isn’t it broken enough?

A: Haha, Well, a now-extinct idiom – “break the matter” – was around in the 1500s. However, it’s only been since the 1940s that journalists have “broke news stories” or radio/TV interrupted with “breaking news”. Also, since the advent of 24-hour cable news like CNN, the significance of “breaking news” has arguably been watered down.

Q: And finally, “fake news”? Did Donald Trump really invent it?

A: You’ll be surprised to hear that fake news was defined way back in 1894 – as “journalism that is deliberately misleading”. However, clearly the 2016 US Presidential election elevated it to a whole new level.

Q: Okay, that’s enough news for one day. Time for the weather…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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