Go Ahead and Try to Title This Book; It Cannot Be Done

The quest for the titular pun

“When you know, you know.”

That’s the muddled advice marrieds offer — often unprompted — when single friends consider joining their ranks. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing us that if something sounds even vaguely like a zen koan it must be wisdom, and not budget fortune cookie claptrap. In this case, the wisdom suggests that if you’re not struck by the righteous lightning bolt of absolute certainty, keep waiting for it. (And waiting. And waiting some more.) Expecting an epiphany, however, has probably tainted more otherwise happy relationships than Scrabble, that stone-cold murderer of love. It’s also probably led to some really bad book titles, too.

Veteran authors are known to dispense the same trite advice as wedding-havers, only when they do, it’s directed at literary newbs bumbling toward a book title. “When you know, you know,” they’ll say, gazing into the middle distance as only a seasoned subject of author photos can. Although not much ties together the acts of proposing marriage and titling a book, they’re both ostensibly forever decisions. (Exceptions include when publishers sneakily change titles as a book hits paperback, and that time OJ Simpson’s If I Did It was virtually retitled I Did It for hilarious yet sad reasons.) When somebody gave me this advice as I was struggling to find a title for my book, the absence of some brain-exploding eureka moment haunted me, like a shy ghost who never shows its stupid, spectral face.

The problem was that this book is singularly resistant to easy titling. It’s about the burgeoning subculture of pun competitions — a real thing that really exists. The hypothetical title had a lot of heavy lifting to do. It was expected to: a) convey the idea of verbal sparring, b) give a sense of the tone, which was (hopefully) a hybrid of Mary Roach and Christopher Guest, c) be a pithy five words, max, since the subtitle would inevitably be kind of an info dump, and d) it had to have a pun in it. That’s a tall order. A really tall one. Tall enough to base dive off of, perhaps in order to escape, wingsuit-clad, from a really difficult task.

The title I landed on, many months later, is Away With Words. Not to break an arm patting myself on the back or anything, but, like, come on. Take a few minutes and try to top that. It cannot be done. This title fulfills all the above requirements, along with the stealth fifth requirement of not punning on the word ‘pun.’ And contrary to legend, the jackpot title announced itself neither as suddenly or as forcefully as the Kool-Aid Man. Instead, here’s a rough timeline of how it came to be seared upon the world and also the Library of Congress.

Fall 2015

The contract for the book identifies it with the cute placeholder, Puntitled. Here’s a little secret, though: that’s actually not a placeholder. Puntitled was my first best thought, which is more of a comment on the difficulty of solving this word-puzzle than the abject cleverness of Puntitled. The chief runner up was Pungilism, a portmanteau meant to evoke the idea of boxing with puns, but which in reality sounds more like a duel between differently foul odors. During the course of an interview for the book, when I told comedian Paul F. Tompkins I was considering going with Puntitled, he said, “You might want to keep considering.”

Other potentials from this period: Funny You Should Say That, Pun Fu, My Words Are Weapuns.

Spring 2016

For the next few months, the task of finding a title idly hung over the horizon like a final boss I’d inevitably have to battle. The elusive words might arrive at any moment, a fully formed verbal objet d’art; or, more likely, they would need to be wrestled out of the dark recesses of my brain with a death grip. As I neared completion on a first draft, a scant few formidable contenders entered the fray. The first was Punnish. It seemed to express both the lukewarm predilection for puns I’d started out with, and the spirit-crushing trauma of being around me after my immersion into the pun circuit. This title was deemed too negative, though. There was a half-hour soon after where I was 100% positive that A Game of Groans was the way to go, but that storm quickly passed before I realized it sounded like what MAD Magazine would definitely call its parody of the HBO boobs-and-dragons series. It had to go.

Other potentials from this period: Wordmongers, Words for Where, Idiom Addicts.

Fall 2016

As the drop-dead date on the title drew nearer, and remained as elusive as ever, it was time to get fucking serious about this. I started carving out time for title generation sessions. The first one yielded the following string of unsuitable suggestions, all with the word ‘pun’ in the title: Punintentional, And Then There Were Puns, An Army of Pun, A Confederacy of Punheads. What had I become? Who was this person polluting coffee shop energy with such sweaty thoughts?

Since misery loves company, I threw the problem out to the competitive punsters I’d met researching the book. I started a private Facebook thread for potential titles. What followed was a deluge of punny variations on classic literary tomes that was so profoundly off the mark, they might as well have posted to the dark web instead of my DMs. Chuckleberry Finn. Lord of the Zings. A Tale of Two Witties. All in all, the thread proves to be a lush, verdant garden of Not Helping. The burden was mine alone.

Away With Words happened at some point during the next dedicated title-generation sesh. It came out of a speed round, where I set a timer for five minutes, gave myself a quota of 20 ideas, and proceeded to scribble down anything at all that seemed relatively title-like. Many of the neighboring ideas abandoned the basic requirements. Spitting the Lotto Ticket, Flexing the Lexicon, and The Vernacular Factory were all equal possibilities. When I perused the completed list that day, Away With Words stood out, but I didn’t feel the certainty I’d been promised.

Other potentials from this period: Offhand Jesters, Killing the Filter, Laughing at Nothing.

The final selection was necessarily anticlimactic. I offered the top choices to my editor and her team, and Away With Words was the unanimous pick. I mean, of course it was; literally nothing else works. But when what in retrospect looks like an obvious winner first appeared, it was masquerading as just any other idea. It took some time for me to realize this one had staying power, like when a drunken tattoo concept — another forever decision — still retains its appeal in stark sobriety. The experience proved to me that waiting for a volcanic burst of utter certainty mostly leads to waiting around forever. ‘When you know, you know’ should probably be amended to something like ‘when you suspect you know, you might.’ I’m not sure that’s the one, though. Let me get back to you on that.


Away With Words (Harper Collins) is available now.