A few weeks ago I started writing about the origin of the word blurb, but ended up writing instead about tintiddle, also known as l’esprit de l’escalier. In this post I’ll finish what I started.
Gelett Burgess (1866–1951) coined both blurb and tintiddle, though blurb is sometimes attributed to Brander Matthews. Matthews set the record straight in a 1922 article (PDF) in the New York Times, in which he also describes the art of the blurb.
The story began at the 1907 American Booksellers Association banquet, where Burgess handed out copies of his new book Are You A Bromide? The book had a parodic jacket with a photo of a woman who effusively praised the book and its author. Burgess had borrowed the image from a dental advertisement and had given its subject a new name, Miss Belinda Blurb, and a new role: blurbing.
[Image source: Library of Congress, Printed Ephemera Collection.]
The word quickly became popular and remains so today. The Oxford English Dictionary defines blurb as “a short promotional description of a book, film, or other product”. Some dictionaries, e.g. Merriam-Webster, include blurb as a verb: “to describe or praise in a blurb”.
These definitions remain close to the originals in Burgess’s later book Burgess Unabridged: A Dictionary of Words you have always needed, though they lack Burgess’s playfulness and gentle mockery:
Praise from one’s self, inspired laudation. (p. xvii)
Blurb, n. 1. A flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial. 2. Fulsome praise; a sound like a publisher. (p. 7)
Blurb, v. 1. To flatter from interested motives; to compliment oneself.
Here is a photograph of Burgess at work and at play – to his credit, he seems to have combined these activities throughout his career. He was well known for his humorous drawings and writings, including children’s books, comic strips, and poetry – such as a parody of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
His short verse “The Purple Cow” became so popular that Burgess wrote a sequel threatening to kill anyone who recited it! The poem also inspired rewrites in the styles of other poets. Although his writing amused and entertained, it could also edify: an example is “The Wild Men of Paris”, his fascinating essay on Cubism.
We have no Academy, thank Heaven, to tell what is real English and what isn’t. Our Grand Jury is that ubiquitous person, Usage, and we keep him pretty busy at his job. He’s a Progressive and what he likes, he’ll have, in spite of lexicographers, college professors and authors of “His Complete Works.” That’s the reason why English has ousted Volapük and Esperanto as a world language. It snuggles right down where you live and makes itself at home.
How does English shape itself so comfortably to the body of our thought? With a new wrinkle here and a little more breadth there, with fancy trimmings, new styles, fresh materials and a genius for adapting itself to all sorts of wear. Everybody is working at it, tailoring it, fitting it, decorating it. There is no person so humble but that he can suggest an improvement that may easily become the reigning mode.