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In Australia and the UK, some folks refer to a newspaper as a rag, and I am curious how this term was coined.

Although most people would ask for a newspaper, I have gone around asking "Have you got a copy of today's rag?" today and only one out of twelve people I asked (I asked in coffee shops and the like) didn't know what I meant straight away.

I am trying to make a connection - dirty rag, newspaper commonly used to pack stuff or for cleaning (not a good idea anyhow) but I am stumped as the actual origins of the word.

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In my experience 'rag' is slang for magazine. I've never heard it used to refer to a newspaper- although I see it is listed in several online dictionaries. –  Jim Sep 13 '12 at 6:26
    
As a non native I had always assumed "rag" was used only when talking about newspapers that deal with sensational news items (I've heard and read the expression "gutter press" as regards to what I called "rags") and such newspapers as The Telegraph or The Guardian would not qualify as rags. And I thought it was called "rag" because it wiped the dirt from the gutter just like a rag in a house is used to wipe the dirt from the floor and furniture. It seems from your question that I was mistaken then and that any type of newspaper would be called a "rag". –  Laure Sep 13 '12 at 6:39
    
Also see What are some slang terms for “newspaper”?, [closed], where some dozens of slang terms for newspaper – including rag – are listed. –  jwpat7 Sep 13 '12 at 7:25
    
Prior to the development of wood pulp paper in the mid 1800s, rags were commonly used to produce paper. –  Hot Licks Jul 28 at 12:04

6 Answers 6

up vote 2 down vote accepted

The origin of this use of the word goes back to the seventeenth century. The OED’s entry for it comes under the category rag used in ‘Senses relating to something compared to a torn piece of cloth’. It is quite possible that early newspapers bore just such a resemblance.

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-1; I think you haven't clearly spelled out what the OED said vs what is speculation on your part. Also, are newspapers mentioned in that “category rag used in ‘Senses ...’” section? What entry or heading did you refer to? –  jwpat7 Sep 13 '12 at 7:32
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@jwpat7 Actually, it goes a long way to explaining the history of the term which I was curious in :) –  Fluffeh Sep 13 '12 at 10:37

Definition II 7a in the OED says rag is colloquial for:

A newspaper or magazine, esp. one regarded as inferior or worthless.

It is often used to refer to tabloid newspapers, which some see as a lower form of journalism.

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Generally speaking, when I've refered to a newspaper as a "rag," I've meant it in a disparaging way. +1 –  J.R. Sep 14 '12 at 2:12
    
@J.R.: You're answering the question in my comment to the OP's question, thanks. –  Laure Sep 14 '12 at 7:37

The paper used to publish newspapers is made from a combination of recycled old rags and wood pulp hence the term rag for newspaper

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Interesting! But can you back up your statement? –  Mari-Lou A Jul 31 '13 at 22:51
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OED gives evidence that "rag" came to be used figuratively to mean any small worthless scrap, and this was extended metaphorically to all objects of contempt, not just fabrics and paper but anything: even a person, as early as 1566. Two examples: "that rubbishy rag of a girl" (Ruskin) and "you witch, you ragge, you baggage" (Shakespeare). So while it is natural to assume "rag" refers to a newspaper's raw materials, this is actually the figurative use of "rag" to mean an object of contempt. –  MετάEd Jul 31 '13 at 23:06

OED gives evidence that rag came to be used figuratively to mean any small worthless scrap. This figurative use was extended metaphorically to describe any object of contempt, not just fabrics and paper but anything: even a person, as early as 1566. Two examples:

that rubbishy rag of a girl (Ruskin)

and

you witch, you ragge, you baggage (Shakespeare).

That being said, it is not hard to imagine that when choosing a word to express contempt for a piece of fabric or paper, such as a flag, newspaper, pamphlet, or legal document, rag would be an easy choice. In the case of paper, this is partly because of physical resemblance to fabric, and partly because rags were (and sometimes are) used to make paper.

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In the 13th century in Europe paper was made from pulping rags, a process developed in the Netherlands. This may have had some influence. Think of Rag week. College magazines were often named 'Rag'.

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To supplement Barrie England and MετάEd's answers: Etymonline reports that the pejorative term rag, which is used to express or suggest a newspaper's worthlessness, dates back to the 18th century.

rag (n.) scrap of cloth, early 14c., probably from Old Norse rögg "shaggy tuft," earlier raggw-, or possibly from Old Danish rag, or a back-formation from ragged, […] As an insulting term for "newspaper, magazine" it dates from 1734

The first British newspapers were actually called gazettes after the Italian gazzetta, which in turn is said to derive from the Italian word for magpie (la gazza ladra). And one of the first and oldest surviving British “newspapers” is called The London Gazette. It was first printed on 7 November 1665 under the name of The Oxford Gazette.

The first general-interest magazine was The Gentleman's Magazine, first published in 1731, in London. Whether this magazine or subsequent periodicals inspired the epithet rag (documented three years later), is not known. It might have been an ironic term used by its own readers, or a gratuitous insult by its opponents, there's no way of knowing for sure.

Poor paper quality not writing

From an article published by the same magazine, in 1823, the following extract supports the theory that the term rag was used to refer to the main component of a newspaper, and perhaps, initially, to the substandard quality of the paper used in printing these journals etc. during the 18th and 19th century.

It is notorious that the great mass of printing papers are now made of cotton rags; and that to produce a better colour, the pulp undergoes a chemical process, which materially injures its durability —EDIT

A reader writes:

Allow me to call the attention of your readers to the present state of that wretched compound called Paper. Every printer will corroborate my testimony † and I am only astonished that the interesting question has been so long neglected and forgotten. It is a duty however of the most imperative description our beautiful Religion our Literature our Science all are threatened.

I have seen letters of a recent date already become a carte blanche. One letter, which I forwarded by post, fell to pieces by the way, and I have noticed more than once a description of writing-paper, that being bent, snapped like a bit of watch-spring. I have in my possession a large copy of the Bible printed at Oxford, 1816 (never used), and issued by the British and Foreign Bible Society, crumbling literally into dust.

[…]

The causes of destruction are twofold : the materiel and the mode of bleaching the rags.
The use of cotton rags was very happily superseded by those of linen, yet I fear some manufacturers are not very scrupulous in the selection.
The application of quicklime to the rags, once prevalent in France, but very properly subsequently interdicted was a serious evil for it actually decomposed the material. Are we entirely guiltless? Such a process must needs disorganize the fibre. […]

[Emphasis in bold mine]

The Gentleman's Magazine From July to December, 1823

Due to the high demand of white paper in the 18th century, the processes employed at the time was responsible for the reduced longevity of paper, as confirmed by BAPH (British Association of Printing Historians)

Increasing demands for more paper during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries led to shortages of the rags needed to produce the paper. Part of the problem was that no satisfactory method of bleaching pulp had yet been devised, and so only white rags could be used to produce white paper. Chlorine bleaching was being used by the end of the eighteenth century, but excessive use produced papers that were of poor quality and deteriorated quickly. By 1800 up to 24 million lb of rags were being used annually, to produce 10,000 tons of paper in England and Wales, and 1000 tons in Scotland, the home market being supplemented by imports, mainly from the continent. Experiments in using other materials, such as sawdust, rye straw, cabbage stumps and spruce wood had been conducted in 1765 by Jacob Christian Schäffer.

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Good (+1) work, Kid! –  Little Eva Jul 28 at 23:10

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