Titles are important

This blogpost has a title. That book has a title. Those media articles have titles. The first titles were the Latin tituli picti, from which the word title is derived, and which described the trademark inscribed on ancient Roman pottery. The painted titles were commercial and helped identify the maker. They were marketing tools.

The titles we inherited from the Latin titulus have nothing to do with marketing, though. They have everything to do with art and books. In the medieval period, titles served to identify textual works and artistic figures. In manuscript illuminations, monumental painting and carving, textual titles kept track of who’s who on the scene. In texts, titles established themselves as set ways of naming those texts. With the advent of universities, scholasticism and then of print, titles become as consistent and as persistent as the ancient Roman tituli picti on wine jars.

All our intellectual work today has a title. The titles are all protected, and we have come up with sophisticated ways to protect intellectual property, which includes, and often starts with the title. Sometimes, a title has more to say than the work it names. An artwork title discloses a significant way of reading the artwork which might not have been otherwise obvious. Other titles are just ways to trick us into reading the work. They promise more than they should.

Our writing-dominated culture depends on titles as we do on air. Just imagine for a second that we could organise our textual and artistic output without titles and labels. Titles have never been as indispensable as they are now because our culture has never been as dependent on the written word as it is now. And this organises both our way of seeing the world and the culture, which is a response to it.

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