By: Greg Mitchell
It all started for Jim Bernhard, a former newspaper editor in Houston, about five years ago on a visit to Jefferson, Texas. He saw a bunch of people reading the local weekly, the Jefferson Jimplecute (circulation 2,700) and wondered how it got its rather inscrutable name.
“No one could tell me,” he explained recently, thus inspiring several years of research that resulted in a book to be published this month by the University of Missouri Press titled “Porcupine, Picayune & Post: How Newspapers Get Their Names.”
Along the way he collected a slew of odd or endearing names, from A (the Choteau Acantha in Montana) to Z (The Canyon County Zephyr in Utah). Yes, Virginia, there was once a paper in Alaska called the Kodiak Fish Wrapper & Litter Box Liner.
The Unterrified Democrat has nothing to do with Hillary Clinton. It’s a paper in Linn, Mo., founded in 1866, and one of the longest continuously published newspapers in that state — and in the past it has often shown a Republican bias. There’s also a chapter in the book on fictional papers, among them The Daily Planet (Metropolis) and Herald-Star (Lake Wobegon).
It’s bad enough that most of us don’t know where “Gazette” or “Journal” come from. But what about a “Bazoo” or “Pantagraph”?
Bernhard, a copy editor and assistant city editor at the old Houston Press in the 1960s (before working in theater) told me that he’s always had a fascination with newspaper “nameplates.” Looking more deeply, he found that 60% of the titles used in English-speaking papers emerge from a pool of 15, with “News” followed closely by “Times,” and then the usual Journals, Tribunes, Records, and the like. But where did these names actually come from?
“Gazette,” he found, stemmed from the name of a 16th-century Venetian coin, a gazeta. The French later transformed this to “gazette.” Similarly, “picayune” was the French name of a five-cent Spanish coin used in New Orleans when the paper of that name was founded in the 1830s. Charging a measly picayune undercut the competitors, which sold for twice that, Bernhard relates. So its logo was also its street price.
“Journal” comes from the Latin “diurna.” Romans called compendiums of news posted at forums and other public places “Acta Diurna” (daily events). Julius Caesar later ordered these collections hand-copied and delivered to other spots around the empire, leading Bernhard to not-quite-seriously label these “the first newspapers.” Well, they did include birth and death notices — and an astrology column.
“The satirist Juvenal,” Bernhard reveals, mentions a Roman housewife “pausing in her domestic tasks to read the Acta Diurna, much as a homemaker today might scan the headlines of the National Enquirer over a second cup of coffee.”
Continuing his history, Bernhard breaks down names into categories such as those building on other forms of communication (Post, Mail, Dispatch, Messenger, Telegraph, Telegram); those that suggest the paper is working on behalf of readers (e.g. Examiner, Guardian, Pathfinder, Vindicator, Plain Dealer), or at least shining a light into dark corners (Beacon, Sun, Searchlight, Star).
But forget all that: What about Bazoo? “The poet Walt Whitman in his 1892 collection of essays, November Boughs, refers to a newspaper in Missouri called the Bazoo,” Bernhard relates. “It was in Sedalia in the 1870s. Whitman cites the name as an example of eccentric slang words of the American West. But as a former editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, he could have looked much closer to home and found a Bazoo in Elmira, N.Y., as early as 1877, as well as another in Tahlequah, Okla., in 1888, and a short-lived (one issue) military paper in Arkansas in 1862 known as the Batesville Bazzoo (note the two zs in this one). The Elmira Bazoo was later changed to the prim-and-proper Elmira Herald.”
There’s no agreement on what “Bazoo” means, though one expert links it to the charmingly off-color “wazoo.”
And the one that started it all for Bernhard, the Jimplecute? “Even Vic Parker, the paper’s publisher and editor, cannot swear to the meaning of the name, which has been lost in the dim mists of the past,” Bernhard says.
Parker offers several possible explanations. One: It was the name of a fictitious monster used to scare slaves. My favorite: A drunken typesetter dropped some letters on the floor late at night, and that’s the word that was spelled out.
But that wouldn’t explain why another Jimplecute was published in Spring Place, Ga., from 1881 to 1903. “No one knows how it was named either, ” Bernhard admits.