The Etymology of ‘Magazine’

Since 2012 will be the year in which digital magazines make decisive breakthroughs, we think it important that digital publishers and platform providers are fully aware of the etymology of the term ‘magazine’ and that they do everything possible to sustain in a digital form the polymorphous concept that has worked well for print publishers for several centuries. Accordingly we wish to draw your attention to matters of definition and etymology.
Here are some definitions somewhat adapted from, but also greatly indebted to Merriam-Webster. What meanings do they furnish for this term:

  1. “A  place where goods or supplies are stored: WAREHOUSE” i.e. a cloud-delivered service so that you can pick up your ‘magazine SUBSCRIPTION‘ anywhere, anywhen. The idea of a magazine only being available to you in print form is now past history.
  2. “A room in which powder and other explosives are kept in a fort or a ship”, so a secure place in which readers are assured of some privacy and seclusion (as with an app), but also a location in which wonderful and powerful surprises may explode to delight and shock the incumbents. Digital magazines should retain the ability to shock and awe.
  3. “The contents of a magazine” Merriam-Webster’s lexicographers are considerately reminding us that a magazine lives and dies by its contents. When you think about it, its a trifle odd that a ‘magazine’ should denote the stuff that it contains (as well as the building that does the containing). But print and digital magazines are also like this, containers and contents. We sometimes mean ‘the object that holds stuff’ and we sometimes mean by the term ‘everything that is in it’.  And, although the learned lexicographers don’t say this the front cover and the Table of Contents are very important, mainly because they tell us what is in the issue.
  4. “A periodical containing miscellaneous pieces (as articles, stories, poems) and often illustrated; also : such a periodical published online.” Its fourth on the list, but finally Merriam-Webster tell us that a magazine is a periodical, and yes it can be published online. But its the periodical element of the magazine which is really fascinating and unusual in digital formats. Digital magazines also should have the attractions and rhythm of a recurrent pattern. The same and yet different, popping up in our newsstand or on our preferred device at regular and predictable intervals, with moments or predictable unity and coherence. Magazines are not RSS feeds. Do you think that in five years time the dictionary definition will start with the digital periodical proposition, and then add parenthetically, “…magazines were formerly published in print, and in the twentieth century they were delivered internationally by airmail”?
  5. “A supply chamber: as : a holder in or on a gun for cartridges to be fed into the gun chamber”. As you can see the lexicographers are gently nudging us toward the periodical idea again, or as Smith and Wesson had it a good magazines is a ‘revolver’ or a ‘repeater’, spent issues may be rejected yet they should remain accessible in the archive. Through this definition we are reminded that magazines from time to time may erupt with explosive and powerful issues. I do hope that digital magazines retain this ability to surprise and stun their audience.

So you see what a surprisingly varied and complex thing a magazine is? And we haven’t even got in to the matter of what the French mean by magasin. A shop or store in which you can buy all kinds of things, perhaps last minute presents for your nearest and dearest? Digital magazines are good for that purpose also.

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