Guest Post: Magazines and the Dentist Test

Cosmin Dzsurdzsa is a research assistant working on identifying the textual genre of quotations in the OED. Here he writes the first in a series of posts on borderline and difficult genre determinations.

Filtering quotation blocks is essential to optimizing our results with the quantity of data we deal with here at LOW. For a long time now we’ve been working with “long tokens” and “short tokens” as work identifiers: a “long token” is all the title and author information contained in a quotation; a “short token” is only the author information, or, if there is no individual author, the title information (some quotes therefore have identical short and long tokens, but most do not).

For most of the project, we’ve been grouping works by short token, then ranking them according to the number of quotations in that short token. Recently, we’ve changed tack, because we had gotten down to a short token count that was beginning to be inefficient. Experimenting with a new filter based on grouping works by only the final word in the short token (we call this the “last name”, because usually that’s what it is), and then ranking them according to the number of untagged quotations in that grouping, we have been able to consider together works by the same author identified differently (e.g. “John Smith”, “J. Smith”, “Captain Smith”), and also certain categories of texts (e.g. works with titles ending “Cat.”, “Sci.”, “Ann.”, etc.). This has upped our efficiency, while at the same time capturing highly fragmented, low-count short tokens.

The first common “last name” identifier I will be dealing with in this series of guest posts is “Mag.”, which in most cases is short for “Magazine”.

In our classifying system we have a specific MG tag to deal with magazines. But on closer inspection, publications with this “last name” actually belong to a number of different genres. The purpose of this article will be to outline our systematic approach towards a solution.

One relevant sense of the word “magazine” as defined in the OED proves to be useful to our discussion at hand.

6. b: A periodical publication containing articles by various writers; esp. one with stories, articles on general subjects, etc., and illustrated with pictures, or a similar publication prepared for a special-interest readership.” e.g. “1731 (title) The Gentleman’s magazine; or, Trader’s monthly intelligencer.”

From this we can distil four essential characteristics of the magazine:

  1. They are periodical publications
  2. Containing a variety of texts (stories, articles, illustrations, etc)
  3. Authored by more than one person (*except a few rare cases)
  4. Sometimes targeted towards specific or special-interest audiences

For our own purposes I will add one more attribute which is implied by the nature of a periodical but is important enough to stand alone and makes up a part of our MG genre definition:

5. They are concerned in the main with the contemporary context

With these five characteristics it can be seen why magazines might branch out of one simple MG classification based on the specific publication’s subject matter and composition.

The first problem encountered is that some magazines are an amalgamation of different genres of texts. For accuracy’s sake this would mean that one would have to look at each issue and take into account all of the variety of content to determine the specific issue’s overall genre. For example, a special issue of a magazine might be devoted to a specific theme, cause, event, etc..

The second difficulty is the difference between a publication meant for a general audience and one that is targeted towards a specific audience. Defining where a magazine becomes “special interest” is a problem in itself. But often we come across “Mag.”s which resemble special-topic periodicals, such as literary magazines or scientific journals.

The magazine is a relatively new genre in the history of textual production. The first known publication which can be considered to resemble modern magazines was a German periodical called Erbauliche Monaths-Unterredungen (“Edifying Monthly Discussions”) published for five years beginning in 1663 by one sole author: the theologian and poet Johann Rist ( With the publication of “The Review”, “The Tatler” and “The Spectator”, the magazine first embraced a general reading audience, positing itself as “a middle ground between the in-depth research found in books and the quick recaps found in newspapers” ( The first periodical of this kind to coin the word “magazine” in its title was “The Gentleman’s Magazine” (1731-1922), which is the “71st most frequently quoted source in the OED, with a total of 4184 quotations (about 0.12% of all OED3 quotations)” (OED Online). As can be seen, magazines are no trifle when researching the OED.

Defining a “general audience” can be tricky when considering genre classification. After considering a few challenging examples, we settled on dropping criterion 4-targeted towards a specific topic or audience. So something like Engineering Magazine would be labelled as scientific-expository-periodical, whereas Edinburgh Magazine would be MG. This shifted the emphasis towards criterion 5-texts concerned with the contemporary context. For example, could one consider National Geographic as serving a general audience? How about the New York Times Magazine? Each of these publications has a wide distribution of readers, but topically they seem to be geared towards a specific interest group or social class.

We settled on yes, these are general-audience periodicals, and therefore to be labelled MG. There are several indicators that point to a broader readership: the publication’s popularity, that it requires no specialized knowledge to comprehend, that multiple genres of text might be contained within one issue and that it covers a wide breadth of often unrelated topics (like having sports and book reviews in a single issue). Or a simpler question to ask oneself: could you see you see yourself reading it while waiting at the dentist’s office?

Here’s the “European Magazine and London Review”, a publication that styles itself as targeted for the reading public and a great candidate for the MG tag in our research. Described as “containing the literature, history, politics, arts, manners, and amusements of the age”, the European Magazine fits all of the genre’s essential characteristics except for 4.

The European Magazine: VOL VI (1784) – Table of Contents

A quick glance at the issue’s table of contents will show us that the title is accurate. Largely non-scientific/expository texts dominate the magazine’s pages. Articles like “The Political State of the Nation, and of Europe, in July 1784” and “On the Commercial Ideas prevailing in some Parts of Europe”  point us towards a concern for covering the contemporary context.

Yet there’s a problem with the inclusion of a variety of other genres: “Two Letters from M. Rapin Thoyras”, “Cook’s and King’s Voyage to the Pacific Ocean”, “The History of Ayder Ali Khan” , “Memoirs of the Life of Voltaire” , “Poetry”, “Faith and Works: a Sermon”, etc.. Quickly the publication seems to slide into the mixed genre category. However, it can be argued that since these other texts are contemporary with the issue, their inclusion is for the sake of the reader’s interest in current events, thus upholding the MG categorization. Furthermore, since our research is more concerned with the OED’s quotation of The European Magazine, tagging should be based on which articles are drawn upon–in this particular case MG was indeed the answer.

Following the growing success of publications like The Gentleman’s Magazine, the genre began to proliferate and specialize to the needs of niche markets. “Periodicals were created specifically for lawyers, artists, musicians and other professionals” providing an alternative, or perhaps a supplement to intellectual journals ( The special interest magazine brought criterion 4 into play and also limited the range of textual types within one issue. Specialization meant that not as many forms of texts would appeal or be essential to the topic at hand (after all, a pediatrics magazine has very little use for poetry). Mimicking journals but also providing lighter reading material, the special interest magazine is further removed from the MG tag altogether.

Take, for example, Volume I of The Meteorological Magazine, published in 1866. The first question to ask is, what sort of interest would the OED have in such a text? Like all special-interest publications, The Meteorological Magazine is brimming with jargon not found outside of the field. Quoted for “synoptic”, “southwesterly” and “brontological”, it is clear that the magazine is being used for its contribution of scientific language use. While there are quotations of more popular words and phrases like “demographic”, “rolled-down” and “to join issue”, their inclusion is based on contextual use within meteorological discussion that gives them new sense, such as: “Trees brought down by the torrent were strewn in all directions, many of them buried deep in the rolled down boulders and gravel” (OED). While other genres are included—such as a table documenting rainfall on page 54, and a letter to the editor on page 2—OED usage and the magazine’s predominant form of text leads us to categorize The Meteorological Magazine as scientific-expository/periodical.

Between the significant differences of magazines geared towards the general public and those published for a specialized audience, the magazine appears to often evade categorization. Since every issue can be different and not all magazines conform to established conventions, it is essential that magazines are approached with a little suspicion and a whole lot of attention to detail.

For more information on the history of magazines visit or see Frank Luther Mott’s “A History of American Magazines, 1741-1930”, available here online.



  • American Heritage magazine is a clear counterexample to 5: it is concerned not with the contemporary but with the historical context.

  • Looks like OED3 has a handful of Qs from American Heritage, but OED2 has only one — currently tagged as a letter because it just happens to be a letter to the magazine and we have a rule for that. It’s a good test case for us though — I wonder where our taggers would come down on this one? “MG, or not MG” is the question – alternatively they might call it expository/periodical or maybe even history/periodical.

  • DBG wrote:

    I would imagine if National Geographic passes the dentist test, American Heritage does as well.

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