The people at Merriam-Webster aren’t always known for the most electrifying discussion articles about the world of words, and yet something in their brief seems to insist they produce those articles.
Usually, the one word you might have for these pieces might be nerdish. Or geeky. Or eggheaded.
So I was delighted when a message came in from their offices that they had something I might like. “What’s In a Name?” is a collection of comments from 11 authors on their one-word book titles.
And as I read it, I realized that there really is a very distinctive impact in many one-word titles. One of the best examples I can give you on all levels is Go, the muscular Kazuki Kaneshiro novel in its English translation by Takami Nieda from Amazon Crossing. I covered it in an interview with Nieda, and, as it happens, you can get it free in the “Read the World” promotion for World Book Day right now: here’s where.
My provocation for you today is to think about this and see if you can put into words (I’ll let you have more than one) what it is about a strong one-word title that makes it what it is.
If you’d like a refresher on some singular-utterance titles:
- BookRiot produced a nice list of about 100 of them in 2017 and you’ll find it here.
- Another good list? Thanks, Goodreads.
- More? Here’s the Seattle Public Library at work.
The shortest I’ve come across might be Stephen King’s It. And he’s in the Merriam-Webster piece, not for It, but for Misery. He’s quoted saying, “With Misery, it was the name of writer Paul Sheldon’s main character (he wrote bodice-rippers about a hot chick named Misery Chastain), and the situation he found himself in as Annie Wilkes’s prisoner. So the title was pretty much a no-brainer.”
Another short one is pointed out by Merriam and her husband Webster: Malinda Lo’s Ash. “I’m not sure when I chose to name my Cinderella character Ash, but it seemed crystal clear to me that it was the only name she could have. Her story might begin in darkness, but she rises out of the ashes of her grief like a phoenix.”
In thinking of why such titles work (or don’t), I find that single words that describe an emotionally intense construct work best on me, whether they’re an adjective (Vicious) or a noun (Inspection, just out in March from Penguin Random House/Del Rey by Josh Malerman, author of Bird Box–the October 1 follow-up to which will be the one-word-titled Malorie).
Place names used as one-word titles leave me pretty cold. Heartland. Matterhorn. Edinburgh. I think they give me the feeling that somebody didn’t want to deal with the usual duties of exposition. Exception to the place-name rule: the film title Brazil.
In fact, I think Hollywood is way ahead of us on this.
Here’s IMDb with a handy list of one-word film titles. Warning (not a bad title, Warning): There are 12,325 one-word film titles in this list. After three days, we’ll send somebody out to search for you. [Read more…]