Tabloid: A reduced-format newspaper, generally half the size of a traditional broadsheet paper, that opens like a magazine for easier reading on buses and subway trains. Introduced in the late 19th century in England and the United States, tabloid newspapers quickly became known for their sensational content. Tabloid is often shortened to tab.
So far, so familiar, at least for this lapsed journalist. What I hadn't known was that tabloid derives from an old trademark for a pharmaceutical brand. Ralph Keyes enlightened me in his recently published book with the excellent title I Love It When You Talk Retro: Hoochie Coochie, Double Whammy, Drop a Dime, and the Forgotten Origins of American Speech:
At first readers didn't know what to call this compact type of newspaper. By analogy it resembled a kind of compressed medical pill introduced in 1884 by Burroughs, Wellcome. That pharmaceutical company called its new product line Tabloid. It didn't take long for this term to be applied to any compressed item, including the vertical-fold newspaper format pioneered by London's Daily Mail and New York's Daily News. Because tabloid newspapers tended to emphasize sensational news coverage, their name itself came to signify that style of reporting.
A January 2009 article in the British medical journal The Lancet (free registration required) goes into greater detail:
Coined by Sir Henry Wellcome (1853—1936), [Tabloid] became the registered trademark of Burroughs Wellcome & Co, the company Wellcome had co-founded with fellow American Silas Mainville Burroughs in London in 1880.
Wellcome strived [sic] to come up with an original, catchy word to describe Burroughs Wellcome's new compressed medicines: “I wanted to coin some word that would be euphonious that is something that would be pleasing to the ear, that would be easy to remember”, he would later write. Inspiration struck early one morning in 1884: after passing through his mind combinations of letters and syllables, Wellcome hit upon tabloid—a combination of two words: tablet and ovoid (although some sources claim alkaloid). Wellcome quickly registered his invented word as a trademark to describe his company's products.(The -oid suffix comes from Latin oides, adapted from Greek oeides, "having the likeness of." It's a remarkably productive morpheme whose children include trapezoid, asteroid, thryoid, humanoid, adenoid, android, steroid, and factoid. The last word was reputedly coined by Norman Mailer in his 1973 book about Marilyn Monroe.)
Wellcome's Tabloid product range extended beyond medicine. Johnson Year Book, a photography website, depicts packages of Tabloid brand photographic chemicals. The site picks up the Tabloid trademark story:
Burroughs Wellcome won the case; but the judge agreed the word had acquired a secondary meaning though stated that this didn't interfere with the firm's trademark rights.
The controversy died a natural death when Burroughs, Wellcome phased out its Tabloid products in the 1960s. In 1995, the company merged with Glaxo Inc. (which had been founded in New Zealand in 1904) to become GlaxoWellcome. In 2000, GlaxoWellcome merged with American drug company SmithKline Beecham (formed from the merger of two other companies) to become GlaxoSmithKline. The Burroughs, Wellcome name survives in the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, an independent foundation that supports medical and scientific research.
Image from How Stuff Works.