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Friday, April 5, 2013


By special request from a Wordlady reader, today's word is "magazine". Where does it come from and why do we use it for such disparate things as the place for the ammunition in a gun and a glossy periodical?

Going way back, the word comes from Arabic maḵzan, maḵzin (storehouse), derived from the verb ḵazana (to store up). This was borrowed into various Romance languages in the Middle Ages, including French, where magasin means "store" to this day.

English didn't borrow the word from French until the late 1500s, and used it specifically for a storehouse for ammunition and other military supplies.  But the general sense of "storehouse for assorted merchandise" chugged along beside it, and was also used figuratively, for stores and collections of all sorts of things, including knowledge. By the 1630s, books providing information on a specific subject were being called "magazines", and in 1731 a new periodical publication saw the light of day, calling itself The Gentleman's Magazine, with this explanation for its title:

"This Consideration has induced several Gentlemen to promote a Monthly Collection to treasure up, as in a Magazine, the most remarkable Pieces on the Subjects abovemention'd."

Obviously, the name took off, and with the advent of broadcasting in the 1920s, the word "magazine" was extended again to cover radio and television shows covering a variety of subjects.

Meanwhile, however, the "storehouse for ammunition" sense was alive and well. In the 1850s, much smaller supplies of ammunition, the cartridges for guns, also came to be known as magazines.  
Canadian readers may be entertained to learn that the first mention of the word "magazine rack" found by the Oxford English Dictionary is in the Eaton's catalogue:

1917–18   T. Eaton & Co. Catal. Fall–Winter 416/1   Morris Chair... Paper and magazine rack under arm.

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.