Paperback writer

Paperback writer

As the publication date approached for the paperback version of my history of the Oxford English Dictionary – now available from all good booksellers! – I found myself, perhaps inevitably for a lexicographer, thinking about the word itself. Paperback, that is. It occurred to me that it’s actually a rather odd word for what it is, since it’s not just the back of the book, but the whole cover, that’s made of… well, not paper exactly, but something more like cardboard. But of course nobody says ‘cardcover’. (Actually strictly speaking some people do say ‘card cover’ – but they use it to mean a cover for a card, and it’s not yet that widely used. It certainly hasn’t yet reached the OED.) There is the word softcover, but that is more recent than paperback by some decades. There’s also paperbound, which – like paperback itself – dates from the middle of the nineteenth century, which is roughly when various technological innovations in book production brought the paperback as we know it into existence.

Interestingly, the usual translations of paperback in several other languages mean essentially ‘pocket book’: French livre de poche, German Taschenbuch, Spanish libro de bolsillo. Whereas the usual meaning of the English word pocketbook – a wallet, purse, or handbag – is, if anything, even further removed from its ‘transparent’ meaning. (The use of pocketbook to mean a wallet can be traced back to the late seventeenth century. The word was used to denote a kind of book some decades before that.) The Italians use the word brossura, whose English counterpart, brochure – a word clearly borrowed from French – derives from brocher ‘to stitch’, that being the way that brochures were originally (in the pre-staple era) held together. Though stitching is no longer a characteristic feature of paperbacks, in Italy or anywhere else. Of course many paperbacks are still stitched, but many have their pages glued into the spine, in what is known as ‘perfect’ binding: a term which seems to owe its origin to a New Jersey bookbinder called William R. Crawford, who applied the adjective to his own method of stitchless binding in the 1890s although the technique had been around for some time before then. (Many have regarded the term ‘perfect binding’ as a bit of a misnomer because of the way that poorly glued pages have been known to come adrift, but the name has stuck.)

Another technological innovation of the mid-nineteenth century which also had an enormous impact on book production – and which also had repercussions on the language of books – was the development of a process for making paper on a large scale from wood pulp, rather than the traditional rags. Such paper was so widely used in the printing of a particular kind of magazine – namely one containing popular or sensational stories – that in the 1920s such magazines began to be referred to as ‘pulp magazines’, and the kind of fiction that appeared in them as ‘pulp fiction’; we can even refer to such literature or entertainment as pulpy.

Regardless of the quality of what is printed on it, paper made from wood pulp can have poor preservation qualities: its high acidic content can lead to the paper rapidly becoming brittle. It also tends to turn yellow; but it turns out that this is not why ‘yellow literature’ was so called, although it could be said to share some of the features of ‘pulp fiction’. In fact the yellow in question was simply the colour often chosen for the covers of some cheap reprints of popular contemporary novels issued in the mid-nineteenth century. It was not long before the term had become generic: the first instance we have is a pamphlet issued in 1843 by the American Copyright Club, which fulminated against ‘this crimson and yellow literature’. (The corresponding use of the word crimson, presumably after another range of covers, doesn’t seem to have caught on.) Within a few years the word yellowback had begun to be used to refer to such mass-market novels. (I should own up that I learned of this development in the history of book publishing while revising the OED entries for yellow and related words, in the course of which I discovered many interesting facets of the history of this fascinating word. Including the origin of the term ‘yellow journalism’, which has nothing to do with yellow covers, or indeed with wood pulp… but that’s another story.)

Interestingly, the Italian word for yellow, giallo, underwent an almost parallel development some decades later. In 1929 the Italian publisher Mondadori began to publish cheap paperback mystery novels with yellow covers, and giallo soon began to be used to refer to thrillers, both in book form and as films. The word has now been borrowed into English as a word for a particular genre of Italian thriller or horror film; thus it was possible for an article in the Guardian newspaper in 1994 to describe the film Dellamorte Dellamore as ‘a gorgeous dollop of “Giallo” nonsense featuring lots of zombie boy scouts, projectile vomiting and castration’. An OED entry for giallo is in preparation and will be published shortly.

We seem to have come rather a long way from paperback. But that’s often the kind of journey that I find myself being taken on when I think about a word: what the writer Stan Carey recently referred to, in a delightful poem written in tribute to the OED, as

a line made by
walking word by
word through the
language glass.

Such ‘walking’ affords me endless entertainment, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this particular amble.

Peter Gilliver’s The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary is now available in paperback.

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.

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