“Blurb”—Publishing Jargon Invented to Make Fun of Itself

From a Wall Street Journal column by Ben Zimmer headlined “‘Blurb’: Publishing Jargon Invented to Make Fun of Itself”:

Linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer analyzes the origins of words in the news.

The publishing industry has a problem, and it goes by a peculiar five-letter name: “blurb.”

Blurbs, those laudatory bits of promotional text adorning book jackets (and these days, Amazon book pages) have come under fire lately. Last month, in an article in The Atlantic titled, “The Blurb Problem Keeps Getting Worse,” Helen Lewis wrote that “the pursuit of ever more fawning praise from luminaries has become absurd.” Sophie Vershbow went even further in a recent piece for Esquire, decrying book publishing’s reliance on high-profile blurbs as “a rigged system long overdue for a change.”

A separate controversy erupted last month over blurbs on the back of the paperback edition of “Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life” by Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson. Two British critics complained that their negative reviews were selectively edited to make it seem as if they were praising the book. The U.K.’s Society of Authors called out the misleading blurbs as “morally questionable” and urged better regulation of publishers’ blurbing practices.

It is perhaps fitting that the very word “blurb” was created in an act of shameless literary promotion. While most words have origins that are difficult to pin down, we know exactly how “blurb” came into the world and who was responsible. We owe the silly little word to the American humorist Gelett Burgess, a purveyor of nonsensical coinages in the tradition of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. After such earlier works as “Goops, and How to Be Them” and “The Burgess Nonsense Book,” Burgess published the short book “Are You a Bromide?” in 1906.

“Bromide” wasn’t exactly a new term, since it already existed as the name of a chemical used in remedies for its sedative effect. Burgess used “bromide” for a dull, conventional type of person who speaks in hackneyed phrases, or “bromidioms.” Over time, such clichéd expressions have themselves come to be known as “bromides.”

A year later, when Burgess was an honoree at the American Booksellers’ Convention, he brought along a book jacket specially prepared for his latest book, featuring a photo of a woman shouting with her hand cupping her mouth. The text explained that her name was Miss Belinda Blurb, depicted “in the act of blurbing.” The caption read, “YES, this is a ‘BLURB’! All the Other Publishers commit them. Why Shouldn’t We?” The jacket copy continued, “When you’ve READ this masterpiece, you’ll know what a BOOK is.”

Later, in 1914, Burgess clarified the meaning of “blurb” in his book, “Burgess Unabridged: A New Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed.” There, he defined the word as “a flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial” or “fulsome praise; a sound like a publisher.” Burgess went on, “On the ‘jacket’ of the ‘latest’ fiction, we find the blurb; abounding in agile adjectives and adverbs, attesting that this book is the ‘sensation of the year.’”

Even though Burgess’s fanciful neologism was intended to poke fun at the promotional excesses of book publishers, “blurb” was swiftly embraced in the popular press and eventually by publishers themselves. Stanley Unwin, head of the British publishing company Allen & Unwin, laid out the business of blurbs in his 1926 book “The Truth About Publishing”: “These brief descriptive paragraphs, or ‘blurbs’ as they are sometimes called, are most difficult to write.”

The word was also quickly adopted as a verb. “Only a fraction of the thousands of books issued each year are worthwhile—yet each is blurbed and ballyhooed as an authentic masterpiece,” ran a complaint in Publishers’ Weekly in 1928. Nearly a century later, blurbs attract the same criticism. But we can at least lavish praise on the word “blurb” itself as a true success story in the lexicon.

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