Friday 7 June 2013

Paperbacks and Retronyms

The paperback of The Etymologicon is released today in Britain. I don't really know why it's a paperback and not a paperfront. In fact, like me, it's soft all round. In the USA they have, occasionally, paperbounds, which make a lot more sense.

Paperbacks were introduced in the 1840s to supply the newly literate lower classes with something on which to expend their literacy. They were sometimes called penny-dreadfuls (cost and quality) and sometimes called yellow-backs because they were printed in bright colours (often, as you may have guessed, yellow).

Paperback is first recorded in 1843, but hardback isn't recorded until 1954. Well, to be fair hardback was recorded in 1750 as the name of a kind of West Indian coleopterous insect, and in 1883 as the name of a central American fish. But hardback as a kind of book doesn't appear until over a century after paperback, despite the fact that hardbacks were there first.

This is a classic example of the retronym. Organic food, live music and acoustic guitars were all there first. However, the introduction of pesticides, records and electric guitars meant that you then had to start specifying. It's something I always consider when travelling on the London Overground.

Anyway, if you found your hardback Etymologicon too cruelly granite-like, or if you once had a bad experience with a coleopterous West Indian, you can now rush to the bookshop and ask for something softer.


  1. It's interesting to note that in many (most?) other European languages paperbacks are called 'pocket book', either using the English 'pocket', or translating it into 'livre de poche, Taschenbuch, libro tascabile, etc.)

    Was this ever used in English?

    (The only sense I've ever encountered of 'pocketbook' is to mean 'wallet', but then I'm not a native English speaker.)

    1. Pocketbook used to exist in English, but has nearly died out.

  2. What of "Soft Bound" books? Are they for the middle classes?

  3. I had never heard the term "hardback" before. In Canada we call them "hard covers."

    When I was a kid, everyone referred to paperbacks as "pocketbooks." But the standard size of a paperback was smaller then. I think "paperback" became popular when the books became too big to fit in your pocket. Pocket Books was also the publishing label for Simon & Schuster's paperback division.

  4. When I self-published a book online (only five years ago) I found that the paper size that would produce what we know as a paperback was called 'Pocket'

  5. This was a really interesting article.

  6. I have never heard the term hardback, but I have heard hard cover. I've always used the word paperbacks but now that I think about it ill call them paper covers.

  7. In UK, the term paperback was used from the early 1940s; it was wartime and there was a paper shortage, so instead of hard-cover books (whose covers were many layers of compressed paper), the covers were of only a few layers. Rationing of many commodities including paper continued for many years after the war, and since paperbacks were cheaper than conventional books, they caught on. The term hard-back, as stated was a retronym to describe conventional books, and to my recollection, came into widespread use in the late 1970s, and remain in use in UK. 'Softback' and 'limpback' are much later terms, the former describing a higher-quality cover, the latter being commonly applied to full-size books with softer covers often sold as 'airport editions' ahead of the normal publication date.

  8. The term pocket book is common the Philippines, the term novel unknown.

  9. I don't see the fuss about 'paperback'. Once the book is in use, open on your desk or lap, the cover IS the back, n'est-ce-pas?