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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

5 Answers 5

up vote 0 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
@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
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)


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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