Purple Cow? Learn the weird reason blurbs are called blurbs

You read the blurb on the back of a book to figure out if you want to shell out the extra bucks for the hardcover. You glance at the blurb on a DVD before deciding if that film is the one to enjoy that evening.

A good blurb provides a short summary or praise of a creative work, but it doesn’t give anything away. It whets the appetite.

People have been slathering praise on each other in writing and spreading hype for longer than you might think. In ancient Egypt the concept was known as taqriz.

But the word “blurb” came about in 1907 with the publication of a book by humorist, nonsense verse writer, and San Francisco bohemian Gelett Burgess. Among his most famous work is a poem called “Purple Cow.”

I never saw a purple cow;
I never hope to see one;
but I can tell you anyhow;
I’d rather see than be one!

At the time, it was customary to have a dust jacket that promoted a book. Featured on the dust jacket for Burgess’ “Are You a Bromide?” was a picture of a woman comically named “Miss Belinda Blurb” and the quote “YES, this is a ‘BLURB’!”

(A bromide is a term in chemistry and pharmacology. But it also refers to a trite saying or boring or conventional person.)

Over time the publishing industry adopted the term “blurb.” And now, blurbs are found almost anywhere there’s printed text — from news sites to cereal boxes to CD covers.

We enjoy covering the eccentric corners of the English language. For example, the story of what “TASER” stands for is truly bizarre. (Read about that, here.) We’re also quite fond of the absurd term used on Wall Street, a “quadruple witching day.” (Find out what that actually means, here.)

Is there a word or phrase that we collectively take for granted, but you think is ludicrous for some reason? Let us know, below.


  1. Dotty -  August 19, 2015 - 2:35 pm


  2. Andrew -  September 11, 2011 - 10:50 am


  3. AltaVersion -  March 1, 2011 - 7:36 am

    [...] “Purple Cow?” Learn the weird reason blurbs are called blurbs [...]

  4. FooGriffy -  February 21, 2011 - 12:03 pm

    No knowledge is useless.

  5. Anonymous -  January 27, 2011 - 12:27 pm

    @Russ Shelton:
    I just looked up “cockamamie” on Dictionary.com, and their definition was:

    ridiculous, pointless, or nonsensical: full of wild schemes and cockamamie ideas.


  6. KLB -  January 27, 2011 - 9:21 am

    Jonathan on January 22, 2011 at 11:39 am

    I sympathise

  7. loser -  January 25, 2011 - 11:34 am

    uuuuuuhhhhhh i have nothin 2 say

  8. Drax -  January 24, 2011 - 7:17 pm

    All it means is that the “normal” is Fouled Up, and that nothing has changed. That’s just how the military is, something broke, tire is flat even though the vehicle never moves, the hot chow is frozen, a key is missing for a lock that gets used every day…you know, a “normal” fouled up day.

  9. Russ Shelton -  January 24, 2011 - 10:38 am

    Hi –

    In your blurb ob blurbs you invited readers to submit requests for the explanation of words .. well, I have one for you:


    Years ago a friend of mine gave me a very interesting definition, that I have long since forgotten .. any ideas?



  10. mark -  January 24, 2011 - 9:35 am

    How is a sitation normal, and all fouled up at the same time?

  11. ._. -  January 24, 2011 - 8:46 am

    Dude, what the hell does that have to do with anything?

  12. RuthieD -  January 24, 2011 - 7:58 am

    I’m surprised not everyone knows “blurb.” I use it in a slightly different way: quips to fill up short spaces in a monthly publication we publish. In my business newsletter years ago I had a column: Quips & Tips. It was full of “blurbs.”

  13. David -  January 24, 2011 - 7:10 am

    @ Micaela – I’ve always heard “preaching to the choir” In many churches, the choir would be seated near the front, often to the side in their own area, and in some churches the choir is an essential part of the worship service, leading the congregation and “backing up” the preacher. So to “preach to the choir” means you are aiming your persuasive speech at those who are already committed and convinced, as they are there every Sunday and will be in the future, and most likely will also provide you with a possitive and accepting response.

    I suppose “preaching to the converted” basically means the same, but I’ve never heard it. – Could be a cultural or geographical difference. Anyone?

  14. devastator -  January 24, 2011 - 7:06 am

    so blurb is a gist?

  15. Roz -  January 24, 2011 - 6:44 am

    Great tidbit…blurbs are now being replaced by “sample” e-books.

  16. bboyfili -  January 24, 2011 - 6:41 am

    wow like i commented on the blog of the use of the word “idol” these blogs completely state useless or obvious thing that dont matter or most people really dont care about, i keep checking this blog just to see if one will finally come out that has the least bit of intelligence or usefulness in it

  17. Stephanie -  January 24, 2011 - 6:38 am

    ooooooh, that’s how it was named.

  18. Rich Durst -  January 24, 2011 - 6:20 am

    > Not sure I get why she is a blurb to begin with. Is there something
    > I’m missing? It seems there must have been some previous use of the
    > word or why would it be funny?

    Judging from the fact that the author in question was a “humorist, nonsense verse writer,” my guess is there was no real joke aside from the alliteration and use of a nonsense word. No prior meaning, no hidden punchline, just silliness, that’s all.

  19. Fabricio -  January 24, 2011 - 2:37 am

    Anyone else wants to talk about snafu, please? ¬¬

  20. Runnerman -  January 23, 2011 - 5:13 pm

    thanks !

  21. Tracey -  January 23, 2011 - 4:49 pm

    Sandy & Wrasfish: Wonder no more…

    Go haywire
    To go wrong, to become overly excited or deranged.

    Hay-wire is the light wire that was used in baling machines to tie up bales of hay. At the turn of the 20th century the expression ‘a haywire outfit’ began to be used in the USA. This was used to describe companies that patched-up faulty machinery using such wire, rather than making proper long-term fixes. In 1905, The US Forestry Bureau Bulletin described a ‘Hay wire outfit’ as ‘a contemptuous term for loggers with poor logging equipment’.

    By 1920, the use of haywire to mean ‘awry’ or ‘out of control’ was recorded in Dialect Notes, Volume 82:

    “Hay wire. Gone wrong or no good. Slang.”

    This may be a reference back to ‘hay-wire outfits’ but is more likely to be a literal allusion to scrambled hay-wire – anyone who has handled coils of wire will be familiar with its determination to gather into an irretrievable tangle. To go haywire was recorded in the late 1920s. For example, in this piece about a basketball game from The Helena Independent, January 1928:

    “…their anxiety to score let their passing game go haywire with many wild heaves finding marks in the bleachers.”

  22. Rose -  January 23, 2011 - 4:24 pm

    I’ve also heard:

    I’ve never seen a purple cow,
    I never hope to see one.
    But judging by the milk at school,
    I’m sure that there must be one!

  23. Misanthrope -  January 23, 2011 - 1:52 pm

    “You glance at the blurb on a DVD before deciding if that film is the one enjoy that evening.”

    Missed a spot, Dictionary.com.

  24. Meg -  January 23, 2011 - 12:48 pm

    To Joe Parsons–i also remeber the “goops” poem–for me it was something my mother would read to me and each of my siblings out of a book that wasn’t by Burgess, but a compilation of fairytales, poetry, and children’s lit. “I’m glad that i am not a goop–are you?”…haha.
    To ‘Kid down the street’–why did you bother posting if you thought this was boring? In fact, why did you even bother READING it if you thought it was boring?

  25. DIVVIE -  January 23, 2011 - 12:05 pm

    TO: Runnerman who inquired on Jan. 22 about SNAFU. I learned the meaning while in the service – Situation Normal, All F_____ Up.

  26. Wrasfish -  January 23, 2011 - 11:49 am

    Runnerman: “Situation normal: all f****d up.” It’s military.
    Jonathan: I think it’s “make do.”
    leetBlaze: You never know what will be useless. I wandered, lost, in Madras, asking people the way to the hotel. They kept giving me directions in furlongs, in spite of the fact that India is supposed to be metric. Fortunately, I do watch horse races.
    Sandy: Now I’m going to wonder about “haywire”–does this mean the wire that’s used to bale hay? If so, why is that wire more troublesome than any other kind of wire?

  27. Rain -  January 23, 2011 - 11:01 am

    SNAFU means Situation Normal – All Fouled Up

  28. poodle -  January 23, 2011 - 10:45 am

    @Runnerman–I think ‘snafu’ is one of those Army words. It means “Situation Normal All F-ed Up.”

  29. MLou -  January 23, 2011 - 10:23 am

    Snafu = situation normal, all f***ed up. Not sure I get why she is a blurb to begin with. Is there something I’m missing? It seems there must have been some previous use of the word or why would it be funny?

  30. Anonymous -  January 23, 2011 - 9:04 am

    What does the saying “You shouldn’t throw stones if you live in a glass house,” mean?

  31. Fatanek -  January 23, 2011 - 8:48 am

    I like these posts. Waiting for the Monday one.

  32. coralie Lang -  January 23, 2011 - 8:26 am

    Someone asked about “snafu”. As a senior citizen I can tell you that that one comes from the army in WWll. It stands for SITUATION NORMAL ALL FOULED UP.

  33. Curly -  January 23, 2011 - 7:55 am


    People who say “I could care less” are incorrect. The correct wording is “I couldn’t care less.” But somehow, that got corrupted into the former (which really defeats the purpose of the thing).


    Snafu = situation normal all fouled up. It used to be a U.S. military acronym.

  34. g -  January 23, 2011 - 7:41 am

    how ’bout some “vittles”? now everything i eat is labled with a 3 syllable expression…

  35. James Rodgers -  January 23, 2011 - 6:49 am

    “Snafu” originated among GIs in WW2. Acronym for
    Situation normal, all f–cked up.

  36. daniel greenwald -  January 23, 2011 - 5:50 am

    The word snafu originates from the second World War, when the Army was in a hurry and often got its logistics scrambled. GIs would say that this “situation is normal, all f*cked up” abbreviated to snafu.
    Along with snafu were fubar and fubab, which did not become popular, but which stand for “…. beyond all recognition” and”…beyond all belief”

  37. Meghana -  January 23, 2011 - 5:43 am


  38. BLURB | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  January 23, 2011 - 5:27 am

    [...] Purple Rose of Cairo, The Purple Prose of BLURBS — The function of a soundbite or a trailer pulled by a purple cow — is ambiguity in [...]

  39. Micaela -  January 23, 2011 - 5:23 am

    I maintain that it’s “preaching to the converted” not “preaching to the choir.” Which is it, and when did the phrase come into use?

  40. Sparky -  January 23, 2011 - 4:31 am

    Daamn…I didn’t know that! Such a silly word explained in a short piece.


  41. ( ^_^)/ -  January 23, 2011 - 4:13 am

    meanbean12 on January 22, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    “Awsum i didnt no dat!!!!”

    Here is a link that might help you with your writing. You seem to need some help with your spelling.


  42. WishfulPolyglot -  January 23, 2011 - 2:01 am

    @Runnerman – I dunno if you are serious or being facetious – so I will just assume you are serious –

    Situation Normal All F!d Up

    With grammar added, I read it as:

    Situation normal: All F!d up.

  43. Courtenay Rule -  January 23, 2011 - 1:11 am

    Well there we go, I didn’t know that either…

    Now after years of being famous for “The Purple Cow”, Gelett Burgess was finally driven to write what is called a palinode – a poem that retracts what was said in an earlier poem:

    Oh yes, I wrote “The Purple Cow”!
    I’m sorry now I wrote it.
    But I can tell you, anyhow,
    I’ll kill you if you quote it.

  44. gul -  January 22, 2011 - 10:29 pm

    knowledgeable ,very informative

  45. Sandy -  January 22, 2011 - 8:32 pm

    Thanks, I always wondered about ‘blurb’.

    I remember when I was little and really thought about the the phrase “everything went haywire” -and of course an entertaining cartoon-y mental image with sound effects followed.

  46. Mitch -  January 22, 2011 - 8:08 pm

    Wow, I can’t believe I spelled that wrong……. just ignore me!!! lol

  47. Mitch -  January 22, 2011 - 8:07 pm

    You know the old saying, you learn somthing new every day…….. well, so far, that still holds true. That was very intersting!!!

  48. boo boo : ) -  January 22, 2011 - 6:31 pm


  49. polp345 -  January 22, 2011 - 4:41 pm

    blurb.i wish i was named blurb.

  50. Kid down the street -  January 22, 2011 - 4:24 pm


  51. Marissa Feilen -  January 22, 2011 - 4:14 pm

    Cool article, very interesting :)

  52. WALNUT -  January 22, 2011 - 4:14 pm


  53. blurbaliciouslycrazy -  January 22, 2011 - 3:09 pm


  54. blurbilicous -  January 22, 2011 - 3:06 pm

    cool and strange! but why is the purple cow thing on there? I dont get it… If u do out there, please respond to my comment and tell me why! thanks so much otherwise i love this! bookmarked this page to show my friends lol

  55. DIVVIE -  January 22, 2011 - 3:02 pm

    I wonder how Mr. Burgess thought of the word???

  56. Runnerman -  January 22, 2011 - 2:08 pm

    What about “snafu”?

  57. Zizzle Sticks doesn't rhyme with Does Not Compute -  January 22, 2011 - 1:42 pm

    O.o that’s interesting.

    Why do we say someone is as white as a sheet? The sheet could be blue, or red, or green, or multi-hued, or… you get the point. =)

  58. Pinki -  January 22, 2011 - 1:33 pm


  59. meanbean12 -  January 22, 2011 - 12:52 pm

    Awsum i didnt no dat!!!!

  60. Srishti Sood -  January 22, 2011 - 12:52 pm

    Thanks hotword for once again solving those mysteries that puzzled my mind and I never really took out the time to solve them.

  61. Jeff -  January 22, 2011 - 12:15 pm

    Very interesting

  62. Jonathan -  January 22, 2011 - 11:39 am

    Sometimes I feel like a bit of a bromide. People often stare blankly at me when I prattle on about the etymology of a word I learned on dictionary.com. Perhaps I should just make due with a blurb next time.

  63. JfromI -  January 22, 2011 - 11:21 am

    I always wondered that. I figured that, like “blog” it was a computer-age term that was an abbreviation for something else.

  64. Joe Parsons -  January 22, 2011 - 8:43 am

    The name, Gelett Burgess, rang a bell when I read it. My wife ran to our bookshelf and trimphantly brought in our much-loved copy of Burgess’s book, “The Goops and How to Be Them.” Growing up, my grandparents and various aunts always had a “goop table” at family gatherings. Bad manners or sloppy eating would get one relegated to the goop table. All of my cousins and I could recite from memory (in unison) the opening lines of “Goops:”

    The Goops they lick their fingers,
    The Goops they lick their knives;
    They spill their broth on the tablecloth,
    They lead DISGUSTING lives.

  65. MOOT -  January 22, 2011 - 8:39 am

    cutipup12 and fairoz: Thanks for your Blurbs.

  66. Jenny -  January 22, 2011 - 8:33 am

    I didn’t get the joke…

  67. sumac -  January 22, 2011 - 8:24 am

    I read book blurbs to decide whether or not to check it out from the library. Why pay for what you can borrow?

  68. bob -  January 22, 2011 - 8:03 am

    wow so great not

  69. wordjunkie -  January 22, 2011 - 7:56 am

    I never understood why people say “I could care less”, when what they really mean is the exact opposite?

  70. Gail -  January 22, 2011 - 7:17 am

    Interesting yes. Useful…hmmmmm

  71. trilby -  January 22, 2011 - 6:41 am

    “that film is the one enjoy” – isn’t there a “to” missing here?

  72. liz -  January 22, 2011 - 6:28 am

    I saw a purple cow…on Milka’s commercials

  73. malathy devanathan -  January 22, 2011 - 5:57 am

    very useful info on’ blurb’ indeed.

  74. leetBlaze -  January 22, 2011 - 5:46 am

    Well… Interesting yet useless.

  75. fairoz -  January 22, 2011 - 2:47 am

    Thanks alot that was useful

  76. cutiepup12 -  January 22, 2011 - 12:19 am

    so that’s how blurbs got their name!


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