Pirated, knock-off… books?
I’ve always liked the idea of semantic space at the intuitive level where human experience is a multi-dimensional topology filled with Venn diagrams on steroids. Each bubble (or blip or Mobius* strip or whatever) is a word, and very few words from language to language are exactly alike, which is to say in this topology that they do not have exactly the same shape. Often a bubble from one language doesn’t have a specific word in the next language and so a paraphrase is required.
In a lot of situations the lack of equivalence is trivial and uninteresting. But occasionally I’m struck by one that seems unexpected. The other week it was meliorative-pejorative. Today it’s coming out of some market research I’m doing for a publisher. We interview people about what books they buy, which inevitably leads to discussion about whether the books are the genuine article from the publisher or are knock-offs. Since we’re talking to students, it’s almost always the latter. But as I write up the report, I start to doubt my own English intuition. Sure, you can use genuine vs pirated, but it just doesn’t seem to quite fit as well as in Mandarin, which has the comfortable pair of opposites well-standardized in common usage:
- 正版 zhèngbǎn, meaning “genuine / legal”, character-for-character something like “true edition”
- 盗版 dàobǎn, meaning “pirated”, character-for-character something like “stolen edition”
In my head the semantic space for “genuine” sort of fits, but it’s much too large. It wouldn’t be immediately apparent to me if you said “I bought a genuine book” what you were talking about. Even tougher for pirated, whose semantic space, for me, is too closely linked to the digital realm. If I heard that someone bought a “pirated” book, I might first think it was a digital copy. As for “knock-off”, I’m thinking more about luxury brands than about books.
Still, knock-off is what I’ve gone with. It seems to expand in the direction of books without too much mental effort, and my guess is that if English-speaking countries suddenly had to deal with a flood of knock-off books, that’s the word that would get selected as the standard. Then again, maybe my English is becoming kind of dàobǎn.
[Update: this is from JDMartinsen’s good work in the comments below. He did what I should have done, instead of relying on my very faulty intuition about whether “pirated” goes well with “books”, I shoulda researched it! Here’s his 1886 reference which he introduces by saying “’Pirated edition’ has a long pre-digital heritage. From the New York Times, 1886(the century that the USA was dealing with a flood of knock-off books):”
PROFITS ON A PIRATED BOOK
CHICAGO, April 27.—In the copyright case of Charles Scribner, of New-York, against Belford, Clark & Co. to restrain them from publishing a pirated edition of Marion Harland’s “How to Cook,” the Master in Chancery, H. W. Bishop, filed a report to-day before Judge Blodgett, showing the profits on the book. The defendants issued two books, one—”How to Cook, Harland”—selling at about $1, of which they sold 9,500 copies and realized a net profit of $720, and the other—”The Economy Cook Book”—of which 44,000 were sold at 10 cents apiece, the net profit being $375.
Now precedence is not tyranny. I could still go with something besides “pirated”. But at least we know it’s been done before.
*Möbius strip, for the umlaut-inclined. Personally, I grit my teeth at foreign diacritics when they’re not critical to the text, because they seem to serve as a reminder that the word is not mine. But maybe I’m just sensitive.