The Grammarphobia Blog

Mastheads, afloat and in print

Q: I was reading The Egoist, George Meredith’s 1879 novel, the other day when I came upon a passage that imagines a sailor “blown from the masthead in a gale.” Am I right in assuming that the nautical “masthead” gave us its periodical sense?

A: Yes, it’s likely that the “masthead” on a ship inspired the “masthead” in a newspaper or magazine, though we haven’t found an authoritative source to confirm this.

The terms are clearly related. Both are derived from “mast” and “head,” two old words with roots in Anglo-Saxon times. And an early masthead from the 19th-century American journal Gleason’s Weekly features an image of a sailing ship.

However, the word “head” had been used figuratively for hundreds to years to refer to the top of a page when the term “masthead” first appeared in its journalistic sense in the 1800s.

Both “mast” (spelled mæst) and “head” (spelled heafdu, heafod, or heafde,) showed up early Old English, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

King Alfred uses both terms in his Old English translation of the Roman philosopher Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiæ (circa 888).

The term “mast” originally meant pretty much what it means now: an upright pole to support the sails of a sailing ship. And “head” originally had the principal meaning it has today: the upper part of a human or animal body.

In the 1500s, the word “head” took on a new sense: the top of a page or the title at the top of a page. The OED’s earliest citation for this usage is from the Geneva Bible of 1560:

“We haue set ouer the head of euery page some notable worde or sentence which may greatly further aswel for memorie, as for the chief point of the page.”

The combined term “masthead” showed up in the late 1400s in the nautical sense, meaning the top of a mast. The OED says it usually referred to a place for observation or flying a flag, though it was once a place for punishment.

The earliest citation for “masthead” in the OED is from a 1495 entry in the naval accounts and inventories of King Henry VII: “A parell for the mayne Toppe maste ffeble j Garlandes of yron abought the mast hede j.”

The word took on a journalistic sense in the early 1800s, when it referred to “the title, motto, or similar device, of a newspaper or journal, printed in a conspicuous place, usually at the top of the first page or front cover,” according to the dictionary.

The first Oxford citation for the usage is from the Dec. 22, 1838, issue of the Hennepin (Illinois) Journal: “Many of our Whig friends … were anxious that the Journal should … carry Whig colors at the mast-head.

In the early 1900s, according to OED citations, the word took on a new journalistic sense: “a section in a newspaper or journal (usually on the editorial page or next to the table of contents) giving information relating to the publication, such as the owner’s name, a list of the editors, etc.”

The dictionary’s first example for this usage is from a 1934 entry in Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition:

Masthead, the matter printed in every issue of a newspaper or journal, stating the title, ownership, and management, subscription and advertising rates, etc.”

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