The Word “Magazine” — A Place to Store History

Tuesday, January 243 min read

The word “magazine” might evoke a colorful newsstand, glossy pages, the unmistakable illustration of a New Yorker cover, or the bold, serif letters of Vogue’s masthead.

Etymologically speaking, however, the word itself has a lot more to do with storage than it does feature articles and fashion spreads. But in a world of confusing etymology, it’s not difficult to follow how “magazine” transformed from a “storehouse” of information and ideas to a product of the publishing world.

Storage Space

“Magazine” has several different definitions, the most well known of which is as a periodical publication or television or radio program containing topical news and entertainment items. It can also mean “a receptacle for storing and feeding film to a camera, CDs to a compact disc player, etc.,” or “a store for arms, ammunition, explosives, and provisions to use in military operations.”

The word first emerged in English with a “warehouse” connotation in the 1580s, from the French magasin, meaning “warehouse, depot, store.” The roots connect to the Italian magazzino, and the Arabic makhazin, meaning “storehouse,” which traces back even further to the Arabic khazana, meaning “to store up.” This original meaning is nearly obsolete in English, but almost always has a militaristic nuance — consider the meaning “cartridge chamber in a repeating rifle,” originating in 1868, and “a case in which a supply of cartridges is carried” by 1892. The original meaning of “storehouse,” from the Arabic, persists in other languages, specifically the French and Russian words for department store: grand magasin, or универмаг (pronounced “univermag”).

A Place to Store Information

Though published material similar to a magazine may have existed in antiquity, most notably in China, the contemporary perception of a magazine as a repository for written and photographic content with wide and long-lasting interest didn’t occur until after the advent of printing in the West.

Given that the Germans invented the printing press (1462), it’s no surprise that the earliest example of a modern periodical is thought to be the German Erbauliche Monaths-Unterredungen (Edifying Monthly Discussions), from the 1660s. From there, the concept expanded across Europe through France, England, Italy, and Holland. However, periodical publications were not called “magazines” until the 18th century.

In 1731, British publisher Edward Cave created what he described as a “Monthly Collection, to treasure up, as in a Magazine, the most remarkable Pieces on the Subjects above-mentioned, or at least impartial Abridgements thereof.” He decided to call it The Gentleman’s Magazine, and it ran until 1914 as an aggregator — or figurative storehouse — of essays and articles mostly collected from other publications, books, and pamphlets. By 1738, The Gentleman’s Magazine also began to produce its own reporting and original writing.

For Posterity’s Sake

As sociology professor Heather A. Haveman at UC Berkeley notes in an article titled, “Antebellum literary culture and the evolution of American magazines,” part of what makes a magazine a magazine is that it aggregates information that is of “more than transient interest.” It creates a time capsule, curating a snapshot of the conversation surrounding events of significance.

Of Cave’s The Gentleman’s Magazine, University of Houston professor of engineering John H. Leinhard wrote that this “first magazine is a window back into a rich time in history. We read obituaries of Johann Christian Bach and Robert Fulton. We read Ben Franklin on revolutionary theory — three years before we declared our independence from England.” Leinhard’s analysis of the first magazine praises it for “the transcendence of real creativity,” and notes that the publisher “gave us a whole new meaning for sorting out who we are — and what we think.”

Magazines are, in many ways, the most prime of our primary sources. They earn this top billing based on the nuance and quality of the storytelling they contain. Newspapers rely on an unbiased accounting of the facts, but magazines often provide editorial color and analysis. Historical editions give us a portal into what actual people thought. In the end, history isn’t just about the facts — it’s about the opinions and feelings of those experiencing those facts in real time. Magazines allow us to hold on to that.

Featured image credit: Photo by Shpuk Kris/ iStock

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