Why Did the Word “Paperback” Precede “Hardback” by 100 Years?

In News by Dennis Abrams

By Dennis Abrams

etymologicon coverAt his inkyfool.com blog, M.H. Forsyth, the author of Horologicon and The Etymologicon (a fascinating look at the hidden connections of the English language, which helps to explain “how you get from ‘gruntled’ to ‘disgruntled’; why you are absolutely right to believe that your meager salary barely covers ‘money for salt’; how the biggest chain of coffee shops in the world (hint: Seattle) connects to whaling; and what precisely the Rolling Stones have to do with gardening,” published in paperback in the UK by Icon Books last week) raised an interesting point: “I don’t really know why it’s a paperback and not a paperfront.”

As he points out, paperback books were first introduced in the 1840s “to provide the newly literate lower classes with something on which to expend their literacy.” These books were sometimes called penny-dreadfuls (which referred both to cost and quality), and sometimes yellow-backs, (because they were printed in bright colors, including, no shock here — yellow).

That much I already knew. But what I didn’t know is that while the first recorded use of the word “paperback” was in 1843, the word “hardback” wasn’t seen in use until 1954. Which means, of course, that the word didn’t appear until more than 100 years after paperback, despite the fact that hardbacks were, in fact, there first.

Forsyth explains, “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.”

Check out the Inky Fool blog here.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.