Newspaper Nomenclature Has Nautical Nature

Rob Kyff on

Q: I've noticed that the word "masthead" is often used to refer to the name on the front page of a publication, but I learned years ago that this was properly called the "flag." The masthead for me has always been the inside box of information that lists a publication's staff. Can you provide some clarification? I'm also wondering why there is a nautical flavor for both "masthead" and "flag." -- Lillian Kezerian, Hartford, Connecticut

A: Wow! You've done a terrific job of clarifying these terms yourself. And you're right about their salty tang.

During the first half of the 19th century, the dramatic growth of mass political participation and the invention of the steam-powered rotary press sparked an explosion in the number of American newspapers.

This journalistic boom coincided with the golden age of the sailing ship, so reporters and editors sometimes adopted nautical terms to describe components of their papers, just as 20th-century computer designers did when they borrowed terms from the aerospace industry for desktop tools such as "launchpad" and "mission control."

"Masthead," of course, derives from a sailor's term for the top of the mast, so when journalists first adopted it during the early 1800s, it originally referred to the newspaper's name or motto at the top of page one. The first known use of "masthead" in this sense came in the Dec. 22, 1838, issue of the Hennepin (Illinois) Journal: "Many of our Whig friends ... were anxious that the Journal should ... carry Whig colors at the mast-head."

But sometime around 1900, journalists began using "masthead" to describe another type of loftiness -- a list of a newspaper's top staff members and owners, and often its contact information and subscription rates. This shift in meaning helps to explain the current confusion over the definition of "masthead."


After redefining "masthead," editors and publishers needed a new term for the paper's name, so they called it the "flag" and thus dubbed the page-wide headline that often runs beneath it the "banner," though it's not known whether these terms were derived specifically from flags and banners on ships.

Another inky term with a possible seafaring connection is "deck," the name for each line or level of a newspaper headline. Perhaps the most notorious two-deck headline in history came in 1975, when the New York Daily News reported President Gerald Ford's denial of federal aid to New York City -- "FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD."

Now that's what I call a deadline.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2019 Creators Syndicate Inc.


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