Author Cath Alexander asked Idiomation for the origins of the word blurb which refers to a short promotional description of a book, movie, or other product that’s written or spoken. A blurb by any other name is micro-marketing that catches (or should catch) the marketplace’s attention.
The August 17, 2007 edition of the Spokesman Review showed how sometimes blurbs can unintentionally mislead readers as was the case with a little something that slipped past the editor’s watchful eyes and made it into all the newspapers published by the Spokesman Review the previous day.
A Thursday A1 blurb referred readers to an item that ran only in the Spokane Voices, due to an editor’s error.
On July 9, 1986 the Chicago Tribune ran a story about the then-new generation of television journalists and the race for top ratings that, according to Kenneth R. Clark, drove reporters “to efforts exaggerated beyond the traditions of simple competition for breaking news.” The Nielsen ratings saw major broadcasting corporations barely slipping past each other each week, and oftentimes tying each other.
The reporter interviewed Laurence Zuckerman (then associate editor of the Columbia Journalism Review) and he was quoted as saying this.
“It has become a game of how to make your anchor more attractive than the other guy,” he said. “They say, ‘Let’s give our anchors more of a personality. Let’s have Tom Brokaw give a little blurb at the end of the newscast.’ At the end of the piece on the Vietnam march in Chicago, Brokaw got on and said something like, ‘I remember when I was a reporter in the ‘60s and covering the anti-war movement. I was outside Chicago in 1968 and I didn’t think these sides would ever come to terms, and now they have.’ It left you feeling very good saying, ‘He, Tom Brokaw, he’s okay. He’s been there.’”
The Free Lance Star of Fredericksburg (VA) republished an article from the Richmond Times-Dispatch on August 29, 1944 that reported on the problems with license plates. The Charlottesville Chamber of Commerce suggested that “historic” be added to Virginia’s automobile licenses but of the businesses felt that the addition of the word would unnecessarily clog up the tags. Some felt that if a blurb was to be added, it should be “Virginia – The Debt Free State.”
The article appeared in the column, “As Seen By Others” and was titled, “License Plate Blurbs.” Near the end of the piece, this argument was made.
Tourists and stay-at-homes as well, however, grow weary of seeing plugs for Georgia peaches or lands of enchantment breezing by on the highway, month after month. There is something to be said for a neat plate without blurbs. Connecticut, for example, has a small, trim but readable license much admired by the fastidious motorist.
SIDE NOTE 1: The article stated the following – Georgia, not satisfied with the words “Peach State” in large letters on its licenses, added for good measure and for the illiterate, a large, daintily-hued reproduction of a peach.
SIDE NOTE 2: New Mexico at the time had “The Land of Enchantment” on its license plates. Maine ran with “Vacation Land” and Arizona ran with “Grand Canyon State.” South Carolina decided to advertise they were “The Iodine State.”
On September 28, 1932 the Pittsburgh Press shared a United Press article by journalist H. Allen Smith about the World Series between the New York Yankees and the Chicago Cubs. Even with a great many public prints of New York Today making a fuss over the game being played that day, the blurbs hadn’t done much to incite the excited reaction from residents.
The journalist felt that there was a great deal of apathy from the average New Yorker with regards to the World Series. He went as far as to state that only one person he stopped on the street and asked about the World Series seemed to know anything about it.
There was one man, however, who expressed an abiding interest in baseball. His name is Stanley Corcoran and he is, by profession, a poem reciter. Stanley arrived from the West Coast last Wednesday and has been camped at Gate C at the Stadium since then. He desired the great honor of buying the first unreserved seat.
Amazingly enough, in contrast to Stanley Corcoran, poem reciter, two people had never heard of the World Series, and one person dared ask who was playing. The article was titled, “Seven Million New Yorkers Ignore World Series Blurb.”
All that being said, the word was published in “Publishers’ Weekly” in the May 18, 1907 edition, and it would seem that the word was no compliment to authors or publishers, and was treated with great disrespect.
The term was popularized by American humorist, author, poet, artist, and art critic Frank Gelett Burgess (30 January 1866 – 17 September 1951) however he wasn’t the one to coin the word. That honor goes to American scholar James Brander Matthews (21 February 1852 – 31 March 1929) who used the word in his paper “American Character” published in 1906.
SIDE NOTE 3: James Brander Matthews counted among his friends Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Bret Harte, Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and Theodore Roosevelt (with whom he corresponded into his White House years). He was one of the organizers of the American Copyright League, as well as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the President of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1913. He was also the first full-time professor of dramatic literature at an American university, serving as the Professor of Dramatic Literature at Columbia until his retirement in 1925.
The Spectator newspaper in London (England) reported on October 20, 1906 that Professor Matthews’ paper “American Character” had taken on the allegations made by a French critic speaking with Leo Tolstoy that Americans cared only for money, were indifferent to art and beauty, and were set on a career of conquest. The September 15, 1906 edition of the New York Times also spoke positively about Professor Matthews’ paper, as well as his presentation of his paper at Columbia.
The honor of coining the word blurb goes to James Brander Matthews in 1906, with a nod going to Frank Gelett Burgess for popularizing it the following year.