The Etymology Behind “Paywalls”; a Rose by Any Other Name…

A study of etymology (the history and origin of a word) reveals several interesting facts behind some commonly used words. A commonly known fact is the evolution of the Russian title “Tsar” and the German equivalent, “Kaiser”, from Caesar. Another lesser-known fact: the adjective “phony” arose from the secret codeword “fawney” used among British swindlers to refer to gilt rings passed off as real gold to their unsuspecting marks.

Clearly, the circumstances surrounding a word have far reaching consequences; why then Paywall is the term “paywall” still a ubiquitous term within the modern publishing industry? According to Wiktionary (don’t judge me on my research, you should try googling “etymology behind the paywall”), the origin is composed of “pay + wall, by analogy with firewall”. A logical enough conclusion, especially back when paywalls were a simple “pay or leave” concept, but it’s unacceptable now that such a term still evokes the emotion of being a fourteen-year-old with a fake ID in front of a smug, grinning bouncer.

First off, the metered model is now one of the most adopted monetisation strategies within digital publishing. For those of you who don’t yet know about the metering concept, it allows casual readers access to articles which may be limited by duration, location, number of views or any other variable the publisher decides on. Imagine the bouncer capitulating and letting the lucky 14 year old into the club but only for a few minutes. Not really much of a bouncer is he? So why should we call him a bouncer?

One of the better blogs we read recently put it in as simple a manner as possible:

"So let’s stop talking about putting up walls to keep people out. […] Why can’t we just call it what it is? A subscription." - Karen Fratti, media and technology writer based in New York City

We whole-heartedly agree with this; stepping back from the digital arena, we were offered a free issue of the Economist, before getting a proposal to pay £X for 12 issues a year. Do you know what the friendly folks at the Economist called this proposal? A subscription.

One of the comments we read around Karen’s article was by another blogger, Bill Bennett, for whom the term “paywall” brings to mind the watch towers and armed guard that patrolled central Berlin during the Cold War. For him, the use of the term “paywall” is the new media’s equivalent of Cold War thinking.

"We’re wordsmiths, we know words matter, and ‘paywall’ is another relic of the old media-new media debate. Knock it off." - Karen Fratti

Do us a favour: next time you’re reading news online, when you hit the article limit, don’t think about whether you would pay to get past the “paywall”. Instead ask whether the articles are good enough for it to be worth your time to subscribe.

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