I’ll get to the regularly scheduled links in a bit, but I wanted to lead off with some recommendations from my 2019 media diet (a term I’ve borrowed from Jason Kottke, whose blog always makes for tasty consumption).
“Is Tinsel Canceled?” asks a headline in the December 19 New York Times Style section. The verdict: “Glitter, tinsel and shiny wrapping paper are now signs of the apocalypse, judging by the #zerowasteholidays and similar hashtags that are blooming on Instagram.”
That may be an overstatement: Tinsel tours and tinsel trailsstill thrive in various US municipalities, and mirror-bright strips adorn plenty of wreaths and trees. So let’s table the eco-arguments aside and get to the question at hand: What is this stuff called tinsel, and where does that word come from?
There was a time, not so long ago, when brands avoided the word secondhand, with its overtones of “second class” and its toxic whiff of “secondhand smoke.” If they had to broach the subject of non-newness, they used tech-sounding words like upcycling—Cambridge Dictionary’s word of the year for 2019—or coy circumlocutions like nearly new. Or they opted, as Stan Carey notedin a 2011 blog post, for euphemisms like preloved or even experienced—as in “experienced cars,” the winner of William Safire’s 1979 Language Prettification and Avoidance of Ugly Reality Award.
Lately, though, plain-spoken secondhand (sometimes spelled second-hand) has been reclaimed with something like pride. “As the secondhand apparel market booms, used clothing is becoming an acceptable holiday gift,” reads a November 27, 2019, headline on CNBC.com. In the UK, the Oxfam charity promoted #secondhandseptember. In the US, the giant online reseller thredUP—whose tagline is “Secondhand clothes. Firsthand fun”—is behind the catchy hashtag #secondhandfirst. (More than 170,000 Instagram posts use that hashtag.) In August, thredUP announced partnerships with JCPenney and Macy’s to sell secondhand fashion in the department stores.
Secondhandis even the title of a new book by Adam Minter with the subtitle “Travels in the New Global Garage Sale.” (Listen to or read a Fresh Air interview with Minter here.)
What are the odds? Whether through coincidence or cosmic convergence, two new novels with nearly identical titles—The Revisioners and The Revisionaries—are being published within a single 30-day period this autumn.
I haven’t yet read either of the books, but I am interested in title trends (read my Medium story about book titles here), and this one is especially intriguing. Sexton’s book is about women, race, and the stories told in families; Moxon’s is about a street preacher, a mental patient, and a religious cult. (And yes, I noted the other coincidence: both authors have an X in their surnames.) What is it, I wonder, about revision that appeals so strongly right now to two writers with such different interests and approaches? And not just those two writers: I see revisionist and revisionary cropping up regularly in popular culture.
I’d read and enjoyed Deborah Blum’s 2010 book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, about the birth of forensic medicine in the early 20th century, so I expected to be similarly educated and entertained by The Poison Squad(2018), about the fight for safe food in the US that led to the passage in 1906 of the Food and Drug Act. What I hadn’t expected was that I’d learn a completely new context and surprising etymology for a familiar word.
The wildfires have barely been extinguished here in California, but it’s already word-of-the-year season across the pond, where three prominent dictionaries chose words or phrases with a common theme: climate change, or preventing it. Cambridge Dictionary went first, with upcycling: “the activity of making new furniture, objects, etc. out of old or used things or waste material.” Collins Dictionary chose climate strike: “a protest demanding action on climate change.” And Oxford Dictionaries picked climate emergency from an all-environmental shortlist that included “climate action,” “climate denial,” “eco-anxiety,” “extinction” and “flight shame.”
Let the record show that lexicographer Jane Solomon, recently of Dictionary.com, spotted the trend back in September.
Maybe you’ve accepted the NaNoWriMo challenge: Write 50,000 words of a new novel during the month of November. Maybe you’re working on an essay collection, a biography, or a book-length work of journalism.
Whatever your project, at some point you’ll need a title. Selecting the right one can seem daunting until you understand an important truth: You don’t need to be creative or even original. You need to follow a formula with proven success.
In my latest essay for Medium, “Book Titles Made Easy(ish),” I present ten popular formulas for book titles, from the punchy single word (Blink, Grunt, Cod) to the inquisitive journalistic style (Where the Crawdads Sing, Why We Dream, When You Are Engulfed in Flames). I also provide exercises for experimenting with each formula.
You may know me as a developer of company and product names, but I’m also interested in the whole spectrum of naming. In my latest column for the Visual Thesaurus—timed to coincide with National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo—I look at fictional character names and offer some tips for creating memorable ones. I’m grateful to the many successful authors—including Elizabeth McCracken, Andrew Sean Greer, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, and Cathleen Schine—who generously shared their tips and insights with me. The column isn’t paywalled this month, so read (and share) freely!
Blog bonus #1: In the column I include a brief quote from a chapter on literary names in The Language of Names, the 1997 book by Anne Bernays and Justin Kaplan that’s occupied my reference shelf for more than a decade. Here’s a bit more from that chapter:
When the paperback edition of [Anne] Bernays’s first novel, Short Pleasures, was published in 1963, she was sued for a million dollars by a man who had the same unusual surname as one of her characters, a predatory, bisexual summer-theater director. The plaintiff was someone she had never met or heard of.
She discovered, too late, that there were only five people in the Manhattan telephone directory with that name, and they were all related to one another. It cost her thousands simply to defend the suit, which was eventually settled out of court.