The Grammarphobia Blog

Is it self-titled or eponymous?

Q: Is “self-titled” becoming an accepted synonym for “eponymous”? As an editor, I used to blue-pencil it from music reviews back in the ’80s. But “self-titled” is used all over now—I’m seeing it in the Chicago Tribune, DownBeat, Rolling Stone, Billboard, even the New Yorker.

A: The short answer is that “self-titled” is already an accepted synonym for “eponymous”—at least in music journalism, where it’s used to describe an album named after the artist.

The only standard dictionary that includes this usage is Oxford Dictionaries Online, which defines the adjective “self-titled” this way: “(of an album, CD, etc.) having a title that is the same as the performer’s name.”

It’s also included in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence. The OED definition is similar: “of an album, CD, etc.: having a title that is the same as the performer’s or group’s name.”

We find the term “self-titled” a little odd, since it seems to imply that the album gave itself a title. But odd or not, music journalists since the 1970s have used both “self-titled” and “eponymous” to refer to albums named after the artists.

For a while, the terms were equally common in music writing, but “self-titled” surged in popularity in the mid-1980s and is now the more popular term.

The OED’s earliest example of “self-titled” used in this way is from a review of an album by Loudon Wainwright III in a California newspaper: “His first two records on Atlantic Records, the self-titled one and Album II, were purely acoustic” (Arcadia Tribune, Nov. 16, 1972).

The OED has no examples for “eponymous” used musically, though we’ve found many dating back to 1977. For instance, the Library Journal’s review of The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock (1977), compiled by Nick Logan and Bob Woffinden, commented: “Minor irritant: overuse of adjectives ‘eponymous’ and ‘seminal.’ ”

A search with Google’s Ngram viewer shows that the phrases “self-titled album,” “self-titled debut,” and “self-titled record” have handily outscored the versions with “eponymous” since the mid-1980s.

The Ngram viewer tracks terms published through 2008 in digitized books, which include compilations from periodicals. A cursory search of more recent usage suggests that the trend has continued in music journalism.

Outside of music writing, however, the picture is reversed. In ordinary usage, “eponymous,” a word we wrote about in 2010, is far and away more common than “self-titled,” as Ngram and more recent searches show.

At least in part, this is probably because in the wider world, “eponymous” has two meanings. It can refer to something named after a person (“the eponymous state of Pennsylvania”) or to the person after whom it’s named (“William Penn, its eponymous founder”).

Since we’ve written about “eponymous” before, most recently in 2010, we’ll touch on its history only briefly here. The adjective “eponymous” and the corresponding noun “eponym” both came into English in the mid-19th century, adopted from the Greek ἐπώνυμος (eponymos, formed of epi for “upon” and onoma for “name”).

Originally, both noun and adjective referred to the source of the name—that is, an “eponym” was a name-giver, and “eponymous” described the name-giver. But these words have dual meanings now.

As the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary explains, “we can speak of ‘the eponymous Ed Sullivan Show’ as well as ‘the eponymous Ed Sullivan.’ ”

Before “eponymous” started appearing in music writing of the ’70s, it was often used in other kinds of arts reporting—like book, drama, and film reviews. It was commonly (and often unnecessarily) used in the phrases “eponymous hero” and “eponymous heroine,” meaning the character for whom a book or play or film is named.

But before “self-titled” started showing up in music journalism, it didn’t mean “eponymous.” Since the late 18th century, “self-titled” had referred to people who gave titles to themselves, and it was almost always used critically to suggest that the titles were undeserved.

The earliest example in the OED is from a London journal, The World, July 22, 1788: “The bad Whigs of Old England, about the bad-bottom’d Whigs, A self-titled set, a vile prostitute clan.” (This play on words contrasts the establishment Whigs with a more inclusive party faction calling itself “the Broad Bottom.”)

“Self-titled” in its original sense, a meaning that’s still alive today, is defined in the OED as “having assumed or adopted a given title or status for oneself.” And as we mentioned, it’s generally been used in a derogatory way. Here are some other early examples we’ve found:

“the self-titled Queen of Madagascar” (1845, about a despotic ruler who fraudulently seized the throne); “John Bull, the self-titled ‘lord of the seas’ ” (1857, with “John Bull” referring to England); “self-titled aristocrats” (1861); “self-titled ‘friend of the people’ ” (1865); and “the bluff, money-minded, woman-fancying ‘scoundrel’ Major (self-titled) Parkington” (1945).

So why did record reviewers start using “self-titled” in place of “eponymous,” which would be more precise in the sense of an album named for the performer? (After all, an album doesn’t name itself.)

Some journalists apparently regarded “eponymous” as too highbrow in writing about popular culture.

In an interview published in 2000, Tim Bannon, who was the Chicago Tribune’s entertainment editor at the time, said that “eponymous” was heavily used by music reviewers because “so many albums are named after the bands.”

But he added: “I’ve always disliked that word. It seems somehow pretentious or inappropriate for pop music stories. I’ve changed it to ‘self-titled,’ which is clunky, too.” (From “Hip Eponymous,” by E. J. Dionne Jr., Washington Post, May 14, 2000.)

In the same article, Jack Kroll, then a senior editor and drama critic at Newsweek, took the opposing view and defended “eponymous”:

“Obviously, it’s a word you won’t find hip-hoppers using or the teen culture using. It’s used by a certain class of people. But the work that it does is done by no other word in the English language. … It’s a useful word the way synonymous or anonymous are useful.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.