My word | Laurie Barber

What I Do: The Collins said a column was writing in a newspaper by the same person “or is always about the same topic”.
What I Do: The Collins said a column was writing in a newspaper by the same person “or is always about the same topic”.

Long history with the written word

I started writing this weekly newspaper column 23 years ago.

It started because somebody at work asked me what a milliard was.

I answered him to the best of my ability.

I recall that the Americans were using billion for the same number and it was causing much confusion in Australia.

So I decided to write about it.

Then people started telling me of their pet hates.

And it is still going more then 1150 columns later.

I hasten to add that, so I have been told, journalists can’t add up.

That being said I could have missed a couple along the way.

This week

I thought I would write about column.

Column originally meant, according to my big dictionary, “a cylindrical or slightly tapering  body of considerably greater length than diameter, erected vertically…”

No, that’s not what I wanted, but that word goes back to at least 1481.

The definitions included to shirk work, a division of ships and a name given to many parts of the body,

The word was originally spelt as colompne, colum, columpna and in many differerent forms.

I add that was before dictionaries were invented.

I was after a newspaper column.

Eventually, I found something in my big dictionary’s pages of material.

The name was given to one inch of a newspaper column or a thin piece of brass used to separate columns of type.

That was in the old days of newspapers.

I only know of one newspaper that uses this method, and I had better not mentioned it in case it has caught up.

John Ayto in his Dictionary of Word Origins mentions extremity, included in other dictionaries, but then he mentions that the word in printed material goes back to the 15th century.

I asked myself why I had so much trouble finding it, but then it said a weekly newspaper column was only a 20th century development.

So I looked in the dictionaries.

All  mentioned the greater length than thickness.

But the Macquarie said “a journalistic department devoted to short articles or an entertaining kind” and so on.

The Collins said a column was writing in a newspaper by the same person “or is always about the same topic”.

That would become boring.

Webster says a column is a special department of a newspaper furnished by a particular writer.

Heinemann says a column is a short newspaper article, usually written by the same person.

It adds a column is a formation of troops or vehicles following one after another,

Did you know that the word culminate comes from column?

I thought I would throw that in.

Michael Quinion asks why the letter n is at the end of column, but is never pronounced.

The letter was once pronounced.

It was brought into English, via French, in the 15th century.

Quinion says that William Caxton, the first person to print books with movable type in England, dropped the n from the ending.

The n was reintroduced by classically educated scholars who wanted to match the spelling of its Latin original.

So, if you consider yourself to be a classically educated scholar, it’s your fault.

My word: 

Laurie Barber’s weekly column has entered its 23rd year and has not missed a week and is now published in regional newspapers throughout Australia and NZ. 

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