A dictionary entry for "unputdownable"

Webster’s defines it as “unable to be set aside”, “riveting” – as in “an unputdownable book”.

“Unputdownable” is everywhere in book reviews. It’s even the name of a literary festival in Bristol every October- see Unputdownable.org. Time for some scientific statistical research…

According to official sources the first known use of “unputdownable” was in a letter by Raymond Chandler in 1947, though there were probably more instances before that.

Here’s how Google’s Ngram Viewer tracks the instances of “unputdownable” in its books database from 1960-2008 (for a bit of crack I also included its antonym, “putdownable”). Apologies for size of graph, but you should get my general drift:


(Click on graph for larger image)

The rise of “unputdownable” clearly began in the 1960s. It has been, as they say, onwards and upwards ever since.

Poor “putdownable” (the red line on the graph) hasn’t fared so well. Yet “putdownable” probably came first. Its birth – at least in these Google Ngram thingies – was around 1955. Let’s zoom in on the timeline…


So let’s give “putdownable” a pat on the back, at least in terms of chickens and eggs.

Book reviews

“Unputdownable” is a handy crutch for book reviewers, alongside clichés such as “rivetting”, “compelling”, “gripping”, “lyrical”, “dark” and “a major tour de force”. But one phrase I cannot stand is “literally unputdownable”. Literally?

Two of the Irish comic genius Myles na gCopaleen‘s many inventions were (a) the Myles na gCopaleen Book Club, and (b) WAAMA (the Writers, Actors, Artists and Musicians Association):

Occasionally we print and circulate works written specially for the Club by members of the WAAMA League. Copies are sent out in advance to well-known critics, accompanied by whatever fee that is usually required to buy them.

“We sent one man ten bob with a new book and asked him to say that once one takes the book up one cannot leave it down. The self-opinionated gobdaw returned the parcel with an impudent note saying that his price was twelve and sixpence.

“Our reply was immediate. Back went the parcel with twelve and sixpence and a curt note saying that we were accepting the gentleman’s terms. In due course we printed the favourable comment I have quoted.

“But for once we took steps to see that our critic spoke the truth. The cover of the volume was treated with a special brand of invisible glue that acts only when subjected to the heat of the hands.

“When our friend had concluded his cursory glance through the work and was about to throw it away, it had become practically part of his physical personality.

And how, pray, would said reviewer of a now very “literally unputdownable” book be able to type up his or her review? “Short of having his two arms amputated,” Myles continued, “putting the book down was an impossibility.”