The Grammarphobia Blog

How did news become copy?

Q: A journalist who writes “copy” would never call herself a “copywriter,” yet the journalist who edits her is a “copy editor.” Can you shed any light on the history of “copy” and its use in journalism and advertising?

A: “Copy” is an interesting noun that has, in the words of John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, “a very devious semantic history.”

When the word entered English in the 1300s, it could mean either an abundance of something or a written account of something.

English got the word via Old French, Ayto says, but the ultimate source is copia, a Latin noun whose primary meaning is abundance. (Copia is also the source of the English word “copious.”)

How did a Latin word for abundance give English a word for a written account?

Ayto explains that the Latin word had a secondary meaning, right or power, and this sense “led to its application to ‘right of reproduction’ and ultimately to simply ‘reproduction.’ ”

The Oxford English Dictionary traces this sense to such Latin phrases as dare vel habere copiam legendi (to give, or have, the power of reading) and facere copiam describendi (to give the power of transcription, to allow a transcript to be made).

In the Middle Ages, the OED notes, such phrases apparently influenced the evolution of the Latin term copia, which came to mean “transcript” in medieval Latin.

By the 1500s, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, the English word “copy” had evolved in turn to mean any example of writing, and figuratively any reproduction.

However, Chambers doesn’t indicate when the term “copy” began being used in the newspaper sense—that is, for a draft of a news story that hasn’t yet been edited.

The OED doesn’t have a listing for “copy” used in this sense, but the dictionary does include the word in the sense of grist, or material, for a news story.

The earliest example is from George Bernard Shaw’s Fabian Essays in Socialism (1889): “Those Socialist speeches which make what the newspapers call ‘good copy.’ ”

In a search of Google Books, the earliest example we’ve found of “copy” used to mean a draft of a news story dates from the mid-1800s.

In Saunterings In and About London (1853), Max Schlesinger describes an editor as he “hurries to the Times’ office to read, shorten, and edit the copy sent in by the reporters.”

The term wasn’t used in an advertising sense until the early 20th century, according to OED citations. The first example of this use is from The Art of Modern Advertising (1905), by Earnest Elmo Calkins and Ralph Holden:

“The design and ‘copy’ used in the four-inch advertisement may involve just as much time.” (The quotation marks around “copy” suggest that the usage was relatively new then.)

The earliest citation for “copywriter” (originally “copy-writer”) is from a 1911 work about advertising and publicity that describes copywriters as “professional writers of advertisements.” (All the OED’s examples use the word in the advertising sense.)

Here are some journalistic “copy” compounds and the dates of their first OED citations: “copy-boy” (1888), “copy-reader” (1892), “copy editor” (1899), “copy-paper” (1902), and “copy desk” (1929).

Why, you wonder, isn’t someone who writes copy for a newspaper called a “copywriter”?

Well, it’s possible that newspaper writers simply don’t want to be identified by a word associated with advertising. But a more likely explanation is that the writers don’t need another word to identify them.

Terms like “newsman” (1650), “news writer” (1692), “correspondent” (1771), and “reporter” (1776) were well established long before “copywriter” showed up. (The OED’s first citation for “newswoman” in this sense is from 1953.)

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