Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Takeaway Titles

It's annoying, when you've had a good idea for a post slowly cooking on your brain's back burner for a while, only to read it -- written better, by someone else -- in the pages of the TLS, of all places.  So it goes.

Barton Swaim in the Freelance column (TLS 22/3/2013) talks about his suspicion that certain book titles are frequently referenced by people who have almost certainly never read the actual book, for the simple reason that the title appears to encapsulate the book's presumed message in a handy phrase, which has often become common currency.  Books like Small is Beautiful, or The Shock of the New, or even The Black Swan.

As he says, "I suspect there are a lot of people of a certain age who honestly think they read The Third Wave by Alvin Toffler, whereas in fact they never did.  They've grown so familiar with the concept of the three waves ...  that they can write the words 'what Alvin Toffler called the third wave' in good conscience".

He calls these "energy-bar titles" ("As an energy bar frees you from the rigmarole of eating a whole meal while making you feel as if you have eaten one, these titles have the capacity to allow you to feel you've read what you haven't").  In his own admission, that's an infelicitous coinage.  My own offering would have been (is) to call them "takeaway titles", because the "takeaway" message is encapsulated in the title, with the added suggestion of an easy, unearned meal.


Poetry24 said...

The 'staple' of most journalists, Mike.

Mike C. said...


That reminds me of a related peeve, the way sub-editors use song titles (or punned versions thereof) for headlines, with no real reference to the contents of the song...


Dave Leeke said...

Or whole songs in some cases. The BBC organising a mass singalong for charity to "Perfect Day" or Hovis (?)using "Golden Brown" to advertise their comestibles were both memorable examples. Both songs, of course, are homages to the dubious joys of heroin. But then that's a whole other post.

Mike C. said...


Yes, I've already had that rant when talking about the Olympics, including "Perfect Day".

So few people give any thought to what a song is "about", that I sometimes wonder whether a song's meaning is, in fact, *not* one of its primary properties and just a secondary thing -- a little something extra for the pointy-heads like us.


Zouk Delors said...

Ok, Mike, we all know you've read all those books*, so what was Alvin Toffler's third wave (and, come to that, the first and second ones)?

There are also countless examples of phrases, not originally titles, which have gained mass currency in perversions of their original significance, although I can't think of any offhand.

One similar thing which really gets my goat, is the DNA metaphor, as in the likes of: "It is in this party's DNA to reward hard work" (No, Scum, it is of the essence of your party to derive gain for the few from the surplus value of the many's hard work, then kick them when they're down and out because the few have nothing left to exploit them with, on account of having a machine to do it now.)

*But not, I'm willing to wager even money, Goedel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Yet?

Mike C. said...


No, I've not read any of those titles myself, but that's not the point. The point is that certain book titles seem to summarize their content so neatly, that you can presume to have read them, without actually having done so.

Not only that, but some writers reference such titles in a way that makes it clear that they have not read the actual books. In an academic context, this matters. Down the pub, not so much.


Zouk Delors said...

Ok, I've found out about Third Wave now*; but I'm not interested in reading it till Toffler produces a version of the text specifically tailored to my needs.

Oh, yeah, I've thought of one of those expressions-that-aren't-titles (or not to my knowledge, anyhow): "there's a learning curve". Sound familiar?

* http://www.skypoint.net/members/mfinley/toffler.htm

Anonymous said...

the way sub-editors use song titles (or punned versions thereof) for headlines, with no real reference to the contents of the song

well, a good headline pun should at least manage to pack extra relevant meaning in as well as a little jokette ... although not always. Sometimes we do it just for our own secret pleasure, like the time I wrote a headline about an Indian financier and his friends which referred to "Manish and his boys".