In today’s speech, tabloid refers to a sensational style of journalism and somewhat more rarely, to a newspaper print format that uses smaller pages and folds like a book (as opposed to broadsheet, the traditional newspaper format). But the term got its start in the field of pharmaceuticals.
Tabloid was registered as a trademark in 1884 by Burroughs, Wellcome & Co. They formed the word by blending tablet with -oid, meaning resembling or similar to. From the Trade Marks Journal of 23 April 1884:
Tabloid...Burroughs, Wellcome & Company, Snow Hill Buildings, Holborn Viaduct, London, E.C....Chemical substances not included in Class I, used in Medicine and Pharmacy.
Around 1900, the term transferred to journalism in reference to news that was presented in an abbreviated and easily read (and often sensational) format. From the Westminster Gazette of 1 January 1901:
He advocated tabloid journalism.
And from the same paper on 1 April 1902:
The proprietor intends to give in tabloid form all the news printed by other journals.
Use of tabloid as a noun meaning such a paper comes about two decades later. From W.E. Carson’s 1918 Northcliffe, about tabloid pioneer Alfred Harmsworth, the 1st Viscount Northcliffe:
Since 1908 Alfred Harmsworth, like his famous ‘tabloid’, has disappeared from view.
The introduction of the smaller page in lieu of the traditional broadsheet happened about the same time—the smaller format being easier to read on public transport, which appealed to a different reader demographic, one who wanted more sensational stories—and the name stuck to the page size as well. Tabloid papers did not originate the practice of sensational journalism, that was common on both sides of the Atlantic long before tabloids were introduced, but tabloids pursued the practice of sensational journalism with a fury.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton