08 December 2017

Blurbs and Bromides

Book jacket with blurbs

A "blurb" sounds like a nonsense word and its origin was a kind of joke. Nowadays, we associate the word with the short comments of praise used to promote a product. You find them on book jackets and ads, and on DVD boxes and movie posters, as well as some other products that use promotional words from celebrities or "real customers."

In 1906 humorist Gelett Burgess wrote a short book called Are You a Bromide. On the cover of his book, there was a promotional quote of "Yes, this a blurb" credited to a Miss Belinda Blurb. Burgess defined a "blurb" as "a flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial." The Miss Belinda Blurb gag caught on and became associated with that type of marketing content.

But Burgess did not invent the idea of putting a promotional quote on a book. Supposedly, it began with Walt Whitman's poetry collection, Leaves of Grass. In response to the publication of the first edition in 1855, Ralph Waldo Emerson had sent Whitman a congratulatory letter, including the phrase "I greet you at the beginning of a great career." So, in the following year when the second edition was published, Whitman had these words stamped in gold leaf on the spine of the books.

Movie poster that uses a number of blurbs

In that same book, Burgess also coined the usage of the word "bromide" as a personification of a sedate, dull person who said boring things, and now bromide means either the boring person itself or more commonly the trite statement of that person.

Actual silver bromide was a chemical used in early photographic printmaking and later bromine salts were used as a sedative. It was also the basis for Bromo-Seltzer, a popular remedy for headaches, upset stomachs and hangovers. That sedated person or hungover person probably inspired the boring person for Burgess' usage.

Examples of bromides he gave in the book included "I don't know much about Art, but I know what I like," "... she doesn't look a day over fifty," "It isn't so much the heat... as the humidity"
and "You're a sight for sore eyes."

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