Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Do we have a name for it?

Sandra Parshall

Somebody tells you, “I’m reading a terrific book.”

What do you envision? A rectangular object made of paper, with decorative covers and page after page of type?

Do you still draw a line in your mind between “real” books and e-books and refuse to refer to an electronic download as simply a book?

Maybe you’ve grown comfortable with the term e-book, but do “enhanced e-book” and “interactive digitized book” make your teeth ache?

Written work is turning up in so many different forms these days that we sometimes need to string several words together to make ourselves clear when distinguishing between them. I’ve thought for a while that we need to come up with some new names for these new forms, instead of continuing to piggyback them onto the venerable and seriously overloaded word book. I was happy to find support for my view in Anne Kostick’s blog on Digital Book World. Excellent piece. Go read it – after finishing this one.

The word “blog” is a perfect example of what we need for all the different forms of bookness. English is the most elastic of languages, and when we hear a new word that fits, we waste no time adopting it. Within months, we may be using it so freely that it has become a necessity in our daily lives. Blog, of course, is short for web log, which is believed to have originated with Jorn Borger and his Robot Wisdom page in 1997. For a while, “weblog” seemed to gain popularity. Then in early 1999, Peter Merholz broke it into two words again, with a twist: we blog. By the time everybody on the planet had one, blog was part of our language. Although some purists – if one can be a purist about made-up words – insist that it be used only as a noun, blog, blogging, and blogged are widely accepted as verbs. And who blogs? A blogger.

Language changes have always been driven from the bottom up, starting with users, not from the top down. If a lot of people use a word, sooner or later the self-appointed language gatekeepers will have to acknowledge it.

When will a blog kind of magic strike the various forms of books on the market, so we will know in an instant what people are talking about? E-book has become such a commonly used term that it’s too late to change it, but to avoid confusion, shouldn’t we use it only when we’re referring to a straight transfer of words to electronic form? Audiobook and graphic novel have been around for a long time and have the virtue of clarity and precision. Other booklike creations still need better names, though, and more are undoubtedly on the horizon. For starters, what pithy names would you give to these?

Enhanced e-book
Interactive/editable/updatable digitized book
Enhanced or interactive children’s picture book
Online (not downloadable) book
Digitized art book


Margaret Koch said...

I wouldn't worry about it. One of the benefits of being a writer is that I love words, and I love to see the language evolve. People will try to force a concept into a box and label it because change is scary, but the language itself will take over and with time, names will evolve that fit that concept. Do you think when Guttenberg helped make the scroll obsolete he ever dreamed that future readers would "scroll" down a page?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I think "I'm reading a book" is a bad example of needing more differentiated words. When I read, I'm not reading a hardcover, paperback, or e-book; I'm reading a BOOK. I'm talking about content, not format. For example, I'm currently reading a book written in 1922, Elizabeth Von Arnim's delightful The Enchanted April, the source of one of my favorite movies. It's now in the public domain, I got it on Kindle, and it cost me nothing. What did Von Arnim write if not a book? And that's exactly what I'm reading.

JJM said...

I agree with Elizabeth Zelvin: a book is a book is a book when you're talking of reading it. The e-book is merely a different format, something made possible by new technology, even as the development of paper led to the light-weight codex (light in comparison with vellum books, anyway) as opposed to scrolls, which in turn were more practical than wax or clay tablets ... The one difference with the electronic book is that it makes "added value" possible on some devices -- hypertexting, embedded videos, et al. That's the thing that needs a term. Otherwise, regardless of "carrier", books is books.--Mario

Carole said...

Nice blog. As a lover of words you might be interested in the word play involved in cryptic crosswords. I am doing a series of posts on solving cryptic clues. This was the first one I did. Hope you enjoy.