the curious history of the word ‘gazette’

In A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), Randle Cotgrave gave the following definition of the French word gazette:

A certaine Venetian coyne scarce worth our farthing; also, a Bill of Newes; or, a short Relation of the generall occurrences of the Time, forged most commonly at Venice, and thence dispersed, euery month, into most parts of Christendome.

The word gazette appeared in French and in English in the early 17th century and originally denoted a periodical publication giving an account of current events. It is from Italian gazzetta (plural gazzette), which originally referred to a Venetian news-sheet first published about the middle of the 16th century, called La gazeta dele novità, literally a gazeta’s worth of news.

The Venetian noun gazeta denoted a coin of small value minted in 1539, which may have been the sum paid either for the periodical or for reading it. The value of this coin varied in different places, as it was minted at Venice for circulation in the Levant. The origin of this Venetian word is unclear. It is perhaps from the Latin noun gaza. In The History of the Athenian Society, published in 1692, the English writer Charles Gildon (1665-1724) explained:

What is the Reason of your changing the Name of your Athenian Gazette, into that of the Athenian Mercury? Gaza (says the Author) signifies a Treasury, and therefore we reserve it for the general Title of our Volumes, designing to entitle them, the Athenian Gazette, or Casuistical Mercury: And Mercurius signifying a Messenger, is the more proper Title for the single Papers, which run about, to Coffee houses, and elsewhere, to seek out Athenians.

The Latin word gaza is a transliteration of Greek γάζα, and both mean treasureriches. The Greek word, of Persian origin, originally referred to the royal treasure of Persia.

Some 17th-century English authors mentioned the Venetian coin, spelling it gazet and gazett. For example, in The Novella, first published in 1653, the playwright Richard Brome (1590?-1652) wrote:

– Take from my hand a peece of foure Gazetts.
– That’s three pence sterling, you are bounteous sir.

And the poet and playwright Ben Jonson (1573?-1637) wrote, in Volpone, or the Fox, first published in 1607:

What monstrous, and most painefull circumstance
Is here, to get some three, or foure gazets!
Some three-pence, i’th whole, for that ’twill come to.

In the same play, Ben Jonson mentions the news propagated by the gazettes of his time:

O, I shall be the fable of all feasts;
The freight of the gazetti; ship-boyes tale;
And, which is worst, euen talke for ordinaries.

Like many writers of the early 17th century, Ben Jonson alludes to the untrustworthy nature of the reports of the gazettes. For example, in Queen Anna’s New World of Words, Or, Dictionarie of the Italian and English Tongues (1611), John Florio wrote:

Gazzéte, running reports, daily newes, idle intelligences, or flim flam tales that are daily written from Italie namely from Rome and Venice.

In this regard, it is interesting that a popular etymology claims that the name of the news-sheet is from gazzetta, a diminutive of Italian gazza (Venetian gaza), magpie, this bird being regarded as typical of tattle. The definition of gazzetta in Florio’s dictionary is:

Gazzétta, a yoong Piot¹ or Magot² a pie.
Also a small coine in Italie.

¹ piot: diminutive of pie [= magpie]
² magot: obsolete pet form of Margery and Margaret, denoting a magpie

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