220px-BlurbingAs Wikipedia reminds us “A blurb is a short summary or promotional piece accompanying a creative work”. The word was allegedly invented by American humorist Gelett Burgess who devised a young lady named Belinda Blurb pictured here on the back of the jacket of his book, shouting praise for it. The date of invention shifts under our feet. Wikipedia says 1907, but the book on which the invention was allegedly instantiated was published in 1906. Are You a Bromide? The Sulphitic Theory Expounded and Exemplified According to the Most Recent Researches into the Psychology of Boredom Including Many Well-Known Bromidioms Now in Use — the title and subtitle probably give fair warning of a heavily hilarious read, though not much is at risk if you go for the free Kindle edition, a purchase which Amazon encouragingly assures you will save you $9.99. But be warned — as the picture shows “This book is the proud purple penultimate!!”. (I may wait for the ultimate.) Whether the book was published in 1906 or 1907 is perhaps less significant than the obvious fact that at the top it declares “All the other publishers commit them [blurbs]. Why shouldn’t we?” So it might seem that the etymological sleuth needs to look further back than 1906 in order to find the true origin of the word. Or maybe all those other publishers did what they did without having a handy word for it.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives as its earliest quotation 1914, though its coy etymology does refer to the jacket pictured above. However they seem not to have seen it — that “drawing” looks more like a photo to me: “Said to have been originated in 1907 by Gelett Burgess in a comic book jacket embellished with a drawing of a pulchritudinous young lady whom he facetiously dubbed Miss Blinda Blurb [sic.]*. (D.A.) See Mencken Amer. Lang. Suppl. I. 329.” I don’t know what D.A. might mean in this etymological note: it’s not listed in the OED list of abbreviations — I was thinking it might mean “doubtful attribution” but maybe it’s Dictionary of Americanisms. That “Said to” at the start does make the ladder of reference since then slightly rickety.

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language gives us the Gelett Burgess 1907 story, and notes another, less enduring neologism of his: “gubble” — to indulge in meaningless conversation. The OED does have gubble, but defined as meaning make a noise like “gub”. It’s earliest quotation is from H. F. Day in 1904 Like molasses gubblin’ out of a bung-hole.”

In the olden days we would use the word “blurb” to mean the flap copy which we ourselves wrote for the book jacket. More recently it has moved towards “endorsement by another author/personality”. The OED doesn’t make any mention of “blurb” as a verb, and I think this attaches more to the modern meaning of endorsement than to flap copy. You might get Best-Selling-Author X to blurb a book, while you’d never describe an editorial assistant as blurbing the book when he/she was writing the flap copy. Here’s A. J. Jacobs (he who read straight through the Encyclopaedia Britannica) discussing his blurbing proclivities. (If the OED needs a printed reference, here’s blurb being used as a verb almost to excess.) Matt Galloway looks more generally at blurbs and cover design at The Awl’s Publishing School. All of his contributors treat “blurb” only in the celebrity endorsement sense. Indeed he claims never to use the word, preferring to say “endorsement”.

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* What a thrill to be able to say sic to the world’s greatest reference book. But see the picture. With commendable loyalty The Oxford Companion to the Book follows the OED lead on Blinda, and also ignores the celebrity endorsement aspect of the word. Maybe this is another of these US/UK differences. I wonder if we still use blurb to mean flap copy in UK.

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