In the publishing trade, a blurb is a testimonial to the book that is printed on the dust jacket. It is meant as an advertisement for the book. The origin of blurb is one of the more humorous etymologies.

Blurb was coined by the American humorist Gelett Burgess in 1907. According to his publisher, B.W. Huebsch, Burgess’s book, Are You a Bromide?, had been published and was selling well. At the annual trade association dinner that year the publisher distributed some five hundred copies of the book with a special jacket, as was the custom. It was also:

the common practise to print the picture of a damsel—languishing, heroic, or coquettish—anyhow, a damsel on the jacket of every novel.

Burgess provided a drawing of a particularly buxom and pulchritudinous blonde for the jacket and labeled her Miss Blinda Blurb. The name stuck, eventually including not only drawings of buxom women but also any excessive testimonial to the book.

From Burgess’s Burgess Unabridged, 1914:

Blurb 1. A flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial. 2. Fulsome praise; a sound like a publisher...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.”

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Mencken, The American Language, Supplement I)

blue moon

Some pedants maintain that a blue moon is the second full moon of a calendar month—a rather rare occurrence. While this is certainly one of the meanings, the original meaning is more general, referring to any rare occurrence.

The original sense of blue moon is that of an absurd event that can never occur. The moon is never really blue and once in a blue moon is akin to when pigs fly. (Well actually, when a lot of dust is kicked up into the atmosphere, the moon can appear blue. The eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 caused the moon to turn blue, as did late Indian monsoons in 1927 and Canadian forest fires in 1951.)

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Book Review: New Partridge Dictionary of Slang & Unconventional English

Two weeks ago I received my copy of The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, edited by Tom Dalzell and Terry Victor, from This is an update of the work started by lexicographer Eric Partridge (1894-1979). First published in 1937, his slang dictionary was revised six times during his life and once by Paul Beale after his death. This new work is essentially a new reference rather than just a revision and updating of the earlier work. One can still see the influence of the Partridge originals in some of the entries, but it is quite different in research, scope, and presentation.

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General Knowledge

If you listen to the television news long enough, you will hear someone address the Attorney General of the United States as General Gonzales. This usage always grates on my ear. The Attorney General is not a military officer and there is something unsettling about the chief law enforcement officer of a democracy assuming military pretensions. But as much as I dislike this particular form of address, the linguist in me recognizes that it is probably an inevitable development in the language.

The addressing of the attorney general as "general" is relatively recent, only becoming a practice when Janet Reno held the position from 1993-2001, during the Clinton administration. The problem with this form of address is that the general in the title functions as an adjective, denoting that the holder of the office is empowered to act in all cases to which the state is a party. The attorney general has general legal authority in all matters and the scope of his or her authority is not limited. The attorney general’s antithesis would be an attorney special or attorney particular, legal terms that are not used much today.

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Bloody Hell

It seems that British television has banned a new Australian tourism ad campaign for using the phrase "bloody hell."

The ad, which pitch the sights to see and activities to do in Australia, ends with a bikini-clad woman asking "so where the bloody hell are you"? Evidently British television censors deemed the ad too offensive.

The ad still runs in movie theaters and a print version is also running in Britain. The ad is running on American television without controversy.

Tourism Australia, the organization that created the ad, is reveling in the ban. Scads of Britons, hearing of ban are flocking to the internet to view it. As is typical with such censorship, the ban is boosting the ad’s appeal and success.

"Bloody" has traditionally been a very offensive word in Britain. The 1914 London opening of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion was scandalous as Eliza Doolittle utters the phrase "not bloody likely" in the third act. In recent decades, the word has lost much of its offensive character in Britain and is often heard on British TV.

In Australia, the word is only the mildest of oaths, more an intensifier than anything else. In the US, the word has little currency, but where it does it is not considered offensive at all.

The banned ad can be seen at

Beyonce: Budding Linguist?

From "Beyoncé’s Boost," The Sunday Times, Perth, Australia, 9 March 2006, by Justine Parker and wires:

Bootylicious, the term coined by the former Destiny’s Child star for her own dangerous curves - and made famous by the hit single of the same name - will reportedly be added to the dictionary.

But the Naughty Girl singer is not too impressed by her newfound status as a wordsmith.

“I’m not very proud of that. It’s in the dictionary - it’s crazy,” she said to Britain’s TV Hits magazine.

The 24-year-old, who is famous for her hot hip-shaking in film clips for songs such as Crazy In Love, says she would have stuck it out and put more thought into the term if she had known it would be recorded in the lexicon.

“I wrote the song, but I wish there was another word I could have come up with if I was going to have a word in the dictionary,” she said to the pop mag.

The budding linguist, who is dating rap king Jay-Z, hasn’t yet had a chance to see if the dictionary’s definition is by the book, but she has offered her own spin on the word.

“I don’t know what it says in the dictionary but my definition is beautiful, bountiful and bounce-able,” she said.

Stories about Beyoncé Knowles’s coining of bootylicious have been appearing in English-language newspapers around the world of late. Now, I know better than to expect deep, linguistic scholarship from news reporters who write about pop stars and their music. But there are so many things wrong with the articles like the one quoted above that I just have to speak up.

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How Words Make It Into “The Dictionary”

A question that I get asked with some frequency is I’ve invented a new word. How do I go about getting it in "the dictionary"?

The questioner wants to get credit and fame for coining a term. Almost invariably, I have to disappoint them; their word usually has little chance of ever making it into a dictionary.

So how does a word get into the dictionary? The simple answer is that the editors of a particular dictionary must deem it worthy of inclusion. There is no organization that officially admits words into the English language. Our language is a very democratic one and we admit any word that people actually use. But whether or not a word makes it into a dictionary is another question and the lexicographers of each dictionary are the gatekeepers for entry into that work.

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Navajo Code Talkers

A recent posting on the discussion forum discussed the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II. The subject combines two interests of mine, languages and the history of the war and it also hearkens back to my Army days when I was in charge of communications security for my battalion.

The Navajo Code Talkers were human encryption/ decryption machines that served with the US Marine Corps in the Pacific Theater. In 1942, a Philip Johnston, the son of missionaries to the Navajo Indian nation and one of a handful of non-Navajos who spoke the language, heard of the military’s search for a robust code that could be used on the battlefield and thought that the Navajo might have a solution.

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Linguistics Glossary

This week we examine some terms that used in the field of linguistics and on Like any field, linguistics has its own jargon (see below), used to convey information precisely and concisely. Sometimes this jargon is opaque and daunting to those encountering it for the first time. So, in the interests of better communication, we present this glossary of linguistic terms:

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I received more email comments about last week’s issues than any other. Most focused on two typos: I misspelled Velcro and who. While I am an excellent proofreader of other people’s writing, like most writers I am abysmal at proofing my own words.

One writer objected to my classification of the words as from the 20th century, stating that the 20th century ran from 1901-2000, not 1900-1999. While this hairsplitting may be technically correct, common usage has the century (and millennium) ending on 31 December 1999. But the real reason for my choice of 1900-1999 as the dates is that the OED has no words with a first citation from 2000, so rather than leaving a blank in the slot for that year I shifted the set one year back.

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