Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
If you’re reading this, when you see the word magazine the first image your mind conjures is probably of a thin, inexpensive publication. The Saturday Evening Post, after all, is a magazine. But to military personnel and gun enthusiasts, a magazine is also a device that feeds ammunition into a firearm. Those seem like awfully different things to be given the same name, no?
But magazine began as neither of them. The word traces back to the Arabic makhzan “storehouse,” and probably to its plural form: makhazin. (The kh is pronounced in the back of the throat, like the ch in Loch Ness Monster.) In the 14th century, this was adopted into Middle French as magasin — still just a storehouse, but used as a singular noun, because it wasn’t obvious to non-Arabic speakers that makhazin is plural. English absorbed it from the French during the 16th century, and from here, magazine took two routes of development.
One route developed in the military. Though cannons and other large weaponry had been making a difference in battles for decades, the 15th century saw an explosion in the development of smaller, portable, individual firearms. And if you’re going to supply an entire army with such weaponry, you need strategic locations — military depots and ammo dumps — to store weapons and ammunition and to keep your gunpowder dry. The magazine was that storehouse.
The meaning of magazine was further narrowed over time from a building to hold ammunition to, by the mid-1800s, a container for feeding cartridges in a gun, a sense that only became stronger as firearm technologies replaced muzzle-loading muskets with breach-loading and then automatic weapons.
While military magazines continued to be used for storage, magazine took a metaphorical route in publishing.
In the early boom days of the printing press, people didn’t hit on the idea of periodicals right away. Handbills and newsletters were published only as needed. And books, of course, were meant to set down in a permanent way the wisdom of the ages. It is in books that the metaphorical use of magazine first took hold, as a “storehouse of information.” Magazine began appearing in the mid-17th century in the titles of books that provided information to specific groups of people, such as financiers or pub owners.
It took only a few small steps for these topic-focused “magazine books” — with the addition of a regular publication schedule — to become something resembling the modern magazine. All that was left was for someone to apply the word magazine to their periodical.
That happened in 1731 with the publication of the monthly Gentleman’s Magazine. Its publishers, however, were still using magazine in the metaphorical sense, “a storehouse of information.” But as periodical publication ramped up, publishers needed a new vocabulary to separate their work from book publishing, and the magazine moniker caught on.
And it caught on in a big way. So much so that in the 18th century, the French language — whence magasin first entered English — borrowed magazine back into its lexicon with the English reading-material sense and spelling.
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