What exactly is copywriting?

Why do we even call it that?

Look up copy in a dictionary and you’ll see something like this:

copy (n.) early 14c., “written account or record,” from Old French copie (13c.), from Medieval Latin copia “reproduction, transcript,” from Latin copia “an abundance, ample supply, profusion, plenty,” from com “with” (see com-) + ops (genitive opis) “power, wealth, resources,” from PIE root *op- “to work, produce in abundance.”

 

In the late 1800s the term copy began being used by printers and newspapers to mean:

  • matter to be set, especially for printing
  • something considered printable or newsworthy
  • text, especially of an advertisement

So, rather than meaning that the writer “copied” the material, it meant that the material was intended to be copied — reproduced and printed in the newspaper or ad for all to read.

 

Here’s an even longer explanation, from The Grammarphobia Blog:

“Copy” is an interesting noun that has, in the words of John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, “a very devious semantic history.”

When the word entered English in the 1300s, it could mean either an abundance of something or a written account of something.

English got the word via Old French, Ayto says, but the ultimate source is copia, a Latin noun whose primary meaning is abundance. (Copia is also the source of the English word “copious.”)

How did a Latin word for abundance give English a word for a written account?

Ayto explains that the Latin word had a secondary meaning, right or power, and this sense “led to its application to ‘right of reproduction’ and ultimately to simply ‘reproduction.’ ”

The Oxford English Dictionary traces this sense to such Latin phrases as dare vel habere copiam legendi (to give, or have, the power of reading) and facere copiam describendi (to give the power of transcription, to allow a transcript to be made).

In the Middle Ages, the OED notes, such phrases apparently influenced the evolution of the Latin term copia, which came to mean “transcript” in medieval Latin.

By the 1500s, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, the English word “copy” had evolved in turn to mean any example of writing, and figuratively any reproduction.

However, Chambers doesn’t indicate when the term “copy” began being used in the newspaper sense—that is, for a draft of a news story that hasn’t yet been edited.

The OED doesn’t have a listing for “copy” used in this sense, but the dictionary does include the word in the sense of grist, or material, for a news story.

The earliest example is from George Bernard Shaw’s Fabian Essays in Socialism (1889): “Those Socialist speeches which make what the newspapers call ‘good copy.’ ”

In a search of Google Books, the earliest example we’ve found of “copy” used to mean a draft of a news story dates from the mid-1800s.

In Saunterings In and About London (1853), Max Schlesinger describes an editor as he “hurries to the Times’ office to read, shorten, and edit the copy sent in by the reporters.”

The term wasn’t used in an advertising sense until the early 20th century, according to OED citations. The first example of this use is from The Art of Modern Advertising (1905), by Earnest Elmo Calkins and Ralph Holden:

“The design and ‘copy’ used in the four-inch advertisement may involve just as much time.” (The quotation marks around “copy” suggest that the usage was relatively new then.)

The earliest citation for “copywriter” (originally “copy-writer”) is from a 1911 work about advertising and publicity that describes copywriters as “professional writers of advertisements.” (All the OED’s examples use the word in the advertising sense.)

Here are some journalistic “copy” compounds and the dates of their first OED citations: “copy-boy” (1888), “copy-reader” (1892), “copy editor” (1899), “copy-paper” (1902), and “copy desk” (1929).

Why, you wonder, isn’t someone who writes copy for a newspaper called a “copywriter”?

Well, it’s possible that newspaper writers simply don’t want to be identified by a word associated with advertising. But a more likely explanation is that the writers don’t need another word to identify them.

Terms like “newsman” (1650), “news writer” (1692), “correspondent” (1771), and “reporter” (1776) were well established long before “copywriter” showed up. (The OED’s first citation for “newswoman” in this sense is from 1953.)