Pick up nearly any book, and you’ll see pithy praises printed on its back or inside the dust jacket, usually written by a well-known author or public figure. You likely know that they’re called “blurbs”—but did you ever stop and wonder how these mini-reviews got their name, or who wrote the very first one?
If you think that “blurb” sounds more like a joke phrase than a highbrow publishing term, you’re not too far from the truth. Frank Gelett Burgess—the artist, author, and humorist who’s credited with coining “blurb”—wrote a short book titled Are You a Bromide? in 1906, and presented a special edition of the work at the American Booksellers Association’s annual convention the following year.
Are You a Bromide? was a mocking expression that Burgess used to describe dull, predictable individuals. (It borrows from a chemical compound of the same name, made from the element bromine, which was used as a component of sedatives.) The book was a smashing success, and today "bromide" is used to describe platitudes spouted by unoriginal, insincere, or simply boring people. But while designing a promotional jacket for the convention, Burgess inadvertently ended up inventing a far more enduring word.
Novels of the time period often featured a picture of a sultry or spirited woman on the cover, so Burgess put his own playful spin on the practice: His cover featured a picture of a young lady, hand cupped around her mouth as she presumably shouts praises about the work. Burgess labeled her “Miss Belinda Blurb,” and wrote that she was “in the act of blurbing.”
Burgess—who included mockingly effusive praises on Are You a Bromide?’s book jacket—pokes fun at the boastful practice, wryly noting, “Yes, this is a ‘BLURB’! All the Other Publishers commit them. Why Shouldn’t We?” Over time, people began to associate the word “blurb” with the fulsome reviews, and lo and behold, Burgess’s comical stunt was immortalized in history.
Burgess named blurbs, but as NPR pointed out, scholars believe they existed at least a half-century before the popular humorist poked fun at them. History’s first known blurb was written in 1856 for a then-obscure American poet: Walt Whitman. His vastly more famous literary contemporary Ralph Waldo Emerson received an unsolicited first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855) and enjoyed it so much that he sent Whitman a letter praising the work. A few months later, The New York Tribune published the missive’s full contents, with Whitman’s approval.
Turns out, Whitman didn’t just have a gift for words, he was also a skilled publicist. In 1856, the second edition of Leaves of Grass was released and, sure enough, its spine was embossed with a quote from Emerson’s letter: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” the sentence read in gold-leaf lettering.
Today, blurbs are ubiquitous—so much so that authors send galley copies of upcoming books to their contemporaries for advance praise before publication. Next time you spot one in the wild, take a brief moment to remember the now-obscure Burgess and his Miss Belinda Blurb, especially if the review in question is particularly cloying.