In magazine and newspaper publishing, that first time you see your name on the masthead creates a very specific type of joy and satisfaction. Seeing your name embedded there among your new coworkers makes you feel like you’re truly a part of that publication’s crew.
That masthead of which I write is where the publication prints the names of its staff, its ownership details, and subscription and advertising information. At least, that’s how it is in the United States.
In Great Britain and Commonwealth nations, the masthead is the title of the publication that appears at the top of the first page. In American newspapers, that’s called the nameplate, or what those outside the publishing biz likely just call the logo. What in American publications is called the masthead is the imprint in British English.
That masthead has different but related meanings in British English and American English is just another one of those cross-cultural quirks of our more-or-less shared language. And in this particular case, if we look at where the term originated, both current definitions make perfect sense.
Masthead originated as a nautical term indicating the top (the head) of the mast, the long vertical pole that rises from the deck of a sailing ship and supports the sails. But more specifically, the masthead is where a military ship flies its pennants.
That pennant flying from the masthead signals identifying information about the ship and its crew. So when the term became a bit of publishing jargon, the British use of masthead as that topmost piece that identifies the publication seems pretty natural.
On the other hand, a ship’s pennant isn’t just an identifying marker. It signals to other boats in the area who owns that vessel and who is running it. Different masthead pennants indicate, for example, that the ship is part of a specific country’s naval fleet and that its commanding officer is an admiral. Or that the ship is missing its commanding officer. Or that it’s a boatload of pirates.
This is more like what American publications do with their mastheads: They describe who owns the publication, who is “manning the ship,” and how much they’re going to take you for if you subscribe.
All right, that last bit might be a stretch, but I bet that, right now, you’re making a mental list of publications that ought to fly the Jolly Roger in their masthead — whether that’s on the front page or farther in.