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Verbal Energy

The self-titled album and other creative wonders

Some concise idioms built on the notion of 'self' may be a bit too concise for the Monitor’s language columnist.

By Ruth Walker / June 7, 2012



One of the things I enjoy about National Public Radio is that its music coverage introduces me to sounds I might not find my way to on my own. So it happened recently as I was driving around on an errand. I heard an interview with a couple of musicians who had just released a "self-titled" album. The album made up its own mind what it wanted to be called and just titled itself?

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Well, no, that's not how that idiom works. A self-titled album is an album with the same name as the musician or the musical group performing on it. And see, that's why people say it that way: It's much more concise, with two words instead of 16.

A number of concise idioms involving the word self, though, may be just a bit too concise. Rather like self-storage, meaning storage where one stores things oneself; it's not storage of oneself. One can imagine that being a useful concept, though, on crowded aircraft with a lot of people with a lot of stuff: "Please ensure that your self is securely stowed for landing."

Such tightening (yes, it's confusing if you take it too literally, but doesn't everybody know what's meant?) is part of how language evolves. The term "elderly housing" once provoked chuckles or derision from those who thought "housing for the elderly" was the more appropriate term.

Does this "self-titling" thing show up in other forms of art? Did Charles Dickens ever write a book called "Charles Dickens"? No – although he did write "David Copperfield." When James Joyce wrote an autobiographical novel he called it "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," not "James Joyce."

In fields such as architecture or design, there's a form of self-titling that prevails: It's common to refer to "John Smith, head of the design firm that bears his name," except that the name is never John Smith.

Culinary celebrities take self-titling to new heights in their own way. Daniel Boulud, for instance, the French-born, New York-famed chef and restaurateur, has drawn on both his first name and his last name at different times to name his dining establishments: Daniel, opened in 1993, and later Café Boulud, to say nothing of variations on his initials – db Bistro Moderne, also in New York, "at the midtown crossroads of fashion and theater," according to his website.

There are a couple of Greek-derived words that are useful and fun here: eponym, meaning one for whom something or someone is named, and eponymous, referring to something named for someone. Thus Daniel Boulud is the eponym for his restaurants, and the "self-titled" album could be referred to as the group's "eponymous" debut album.

Once upon a time I called a public relations firm for information for a feature story I was writing. The firm had, instead of the kind of whimsical handle some "creative" enterprises go for, what I'll call a high-WASP name, with an ampersand in the middle, obviously meant to suggest seriousness of purpose and a corporate history going back to the 19th century, if not before.

Except that in retrospect, I realize it had probably been founded just a few years before by a couple of recent graduates of Smith or Wellesley or Vassar. My call was answered by a woman who said, "Good morning, Smith & Jones; this is Anne Smith."

"Oh," I couldn't resist. "You're an eponym."

"Oh, yes," she said after a brief pause. "I suppose I am."

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