There are lots of words out there which were originally trademarks but have become generic, everyday terms. Some of those ex-trademarks are widely known, like Hoover and sellotape. Some of them are a surprise when you find out, like heroin, laundromat and aspirin. One such surprising genericized trademark I came across todaywas tabloid, which I was even more surprised to find out originally came from pharmaceuticals.
Burroughs, Wellcome and Co., a pharmaceutical company, registered tabloid as a trademark in 1884. They invented the word by blending tablet with the Greek suffix –oid, which means ‘resembling’ or ‘similar to’, and used it to refer to compressed or concentrated drugs.
Only a short time later, in 1898, the word was being used figuratively for a small and compact dose of anything. By the turn of the century it was being used in journalism, to denote the type of newspaper which has short, condensed articles and is smaller in size. It was first used as an adjective, as in tabloid journalism, and was used as a standalone noun by 1918.
Like many companies which see their trademarks threatened, Burroughs, Wellcome and Co. filed an injunction against tabloid being used generically. However, the word had become so widespread that, four years later, they abandoned their case and accepted that tabloid had become common property.
Of course, in the early days of tabloid journalism the word didn’t have the same connotations as it has now; it was simply a way to describe that type of newspaper as compressed and convenient, like tabloid medicine was.
Since then it has come to imply superficiality and oversimplified writing but tabloids did not initiate sensational journalism – that was common both in the UK and USA long before the introduction of tabloids – they just pursued it avidly. The tabloid newspaper, being smaller and therefore easier to read on public transport and quicker to get through, appealed to a different type of reader, one who was more interested in the style of stories tabloids are famous for today.