Book titles: When colons attack

I’m glad I don’t have to come up with book titles for a living. Naming books is hard—it’s as much a science as an art. Imagine trying to sum up a book’s entire plot (or purpose) in just a few words.

Maybe that’s why publishers are going back to that most beloved of Victorian conventions: The “colonized” book title. One of my favorites is Eleven years a drunkard, or, The life of Thomas Doner: having lost both arms through intemperance, he wrote his book with his teeth as a warning to others.

See what just happened? By adding a colon to the title, the publisher cleverly gave himself license to write a whole second title. No need to economize words. Brilliant!

Unfortunately, modern publishers are getting equally carried away. Consider Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Human Intelligence but Were Too Dumb to Ask: A Humorous Look at What Intelligence Is, How It Works & Who’s Got It. Isn’t it impressive how, in just 29 words, the title manages to insult your own intelligence and tell you everything you don’t know? Don’t you feel smarter already?!

A quick search of—and a wonderful blog post from Inside Higher Ed—yielded lots more gems. As you can see, there are colon-rich titles to satisfy almost any reader’s appetite.


The Hamburger: A History

The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread

Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World


Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers  (I’m guessing the argument ended when one of them got poked with a poker.)

Rousseau’s Dog: Two Great Thinkers at War in the Age of Enlightenment


Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent

… and for those of you who prefer a more colloquial approach …

The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World

Narrow views of World History

Glass: A World History

Salt: A World History

Fun with raiments

Napoleon’s Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History

The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes

Zipper: An Exploration in Novelty

Colonized vermin

Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants

Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled

Technological marvels

One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw

The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance

The Toothpick: Technology and Culture

The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History

… and yet more food.

Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light

Beans: A History

Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World
But of all the colon-enhanced titles I found, one was conspicuous by its absence.

Naming Books: Why Adding a Colon is Not the Solution to Your Book-Naming Woes (Because Even the Brightest Readers Won’t be Able to Remember Your Ridiculous 67-Word Book Title)

I think I may have just stumbled upon my next self-publishing project.


    • I couldn’t help but wonder whether “novelty” was a euphemism for something. Like “pinched skin,” or maybe “ruined tents.”

  1. Guilty! I’ve developed the habit of doing this with my blog post titles. Admittedly that’s because I like putting strange titles, but then I realise that no-one will know what I’m talking about, hence the colon. And THEN I realise I sound pretentious, but I like the original title, so I’m stuck with sounding like both a crazy person AND a second-rate art critic.

    There’s no excuse for ‘The Hamburger: A History’ though…

    • matthewhyde: Crazy Person and Second-Rate Art Critic. NOT! You put me in stitches, Matthew.

      I can certainly relate to your post-naming anxiety. I’m afraid I’ve come up with some fairly odd titles myself whilst attempting to be creative/funny/smart-sounding. But in hindsight, those are some of my favorite post titles. (Plus, most of my friends already know that I’m both crazy AND a second-rate pretty-much-everything. Ha.)

      BTW: Couldn’t agree with you more on “The Hamburger: A History.” Shameful!

  2. My favourite book title comes from the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard. His exploration of the aesthetic and ethical “phases” or “stages” of existence entitled Either/Or was published in two volumes. When I was a student I could only afford to buy one of them. The problem was that I couldn’t make up my mind which one to buy. 🙂

      • Colons: don’t get me started! I love using them in moderation, but can’t bear the way they have taken over the publishing industry. It was bad enough when they had infected only academia. I think you would enjoy the comments on exactly this topic at The Hannibal Blog: (!) . (You will even discover the colon-free title of my thesis if you can be bothered to scroll down a bit.) Andreas has a lot to say on his blog about the semiotics of book covers and titles.

        • P.S. Sorry, Xpat (and H) didn’t mean to hijack your comment, I put my reply in the wrong place (doh!). But also, as a P.S., loved your comment. I’m going to agonising about your choice all day now!
          [Puts head down and creeps away in embarrassment.]

          • No creeping required. You’re the nicest (and certainly most literate!) hijacker I’ve ever met. Grin.

        • “Colons: don’t get me started!” HA!! And thanks a million for the link — I’m off to check out the dual treats of The Hannibal Blog and The Dancingbeastie Thesis. I am certain I’ll be especially impressed by the latter. 🙂

        • HOLY COW! You’re brilliant! Can’t decide which thesis title I like better, though: the “straight” version or the “academe on speed” version. Thanks for a wonderful diversion.

          PS: I would love to hear more about your thesis. I’m fascinated by all things medieval — and I’m crazy about York. 🙂

          • ‘You’re brilliant’. [preens]

            You, meanwhile, are excellent for morale, Ms Munro. 🙂

            Btw, I can promise that the thesis was about as much a thrill a minute as any other academic thesis. (When I told a friend at my first graduation that I was about to go off and study medieval women, he looked at me and said, ‘They’re all dead, you know’. Mmm.)

          • I *love* your friend’s response to your chosen course of study. “They’re all dead, you know.” Ha!

            And for the record: I DO think you’re brilliant. 🙂

      • I eventually bought both because I didn’t want to end up with a philosophical imbalance; but on the premise that I could actually buy either of them first, I bought Either first. It seemed the right thing to do

  3. Oh I’m relieved. When I first saw the title (before I read anything) I thought it was an entirely different kind of colon. Whew.

Leave a reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s