More reflections on titles

Music is one of my enduring passions and I have for many years enjoyed attending London’s summer music festival – the Proms. I recently attended a concert featuring Olivier Messiaen’s music and was struck by one piece: Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum. There were several movements but they did have not dull, numerical titles such as “first movement”, “second movement” etc. In fact they didn’t really have titles per se at all, but whole quotations from the Bible. A couple of examples:
Ils ressusciteront, glorieux, avec un nom nouveau – dans le concert joyeux des étoiles et les acclamations des fils du ciel
(They will be raised in glory, with a new name, in the joyful concert of the stars and the shouts of the sons of heaven)
L’Heure Vient Ou Les Morts Entendront la Voix Du Fils de Dieu
(The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God)
This got me wondering about titles and the relative merits of literal versus poetic titles. I am usually pretty ascetic about titles – I like them to be meaningful. The title is a surrogate for the thing itself and is an advertisement for or presentiment of that thing. It should give a first clue to help us decide buy / don’t buy or read / don’t read. Many years ago, in a lecture on cataloguing, I recall learning about an article by the eminent librarian Maurice Line entitled “On the construction and care of white elephants”. It was a tirade against the excesses of library cataloguing practices back in 1968, but our lecturer pointed out the horror of this non-meaningful title.
Perhaps Messiaen is onto something though with his obscure titles. They capture some essence of “aboutness” by using a kind of text-cloud of quotation; revelation through obscurity. Perhaps that is a definition of poetry. If a picture is worth a thousand words then a poem is somewhere in between, conjuring up a mental picture with rather fewer than 1000 words. I suppose the danger is that it may miss the target entirely if it is too unspecific.
Anyway, my musings led me to wonder what high-flown quotations (sourced from the Bible, Shakespeare, Goethe and that kind of thing) might make good titles for scientific articles?
If there was a gene called Dag^ger^ then a paper on visualising its expression pattern might be called Is this a Dag^ger^ I see before me?. A paper on immortalising cell lines could be Oh Death, where is thy sting?
Have you ever been tempted to give your paper a poetic title? Spill the beans here.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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3 Responses to More reflections on titles

  1. Martin Fenner says:

    Not my paper, but we had a discussion with the first author about the title in the Good Paper Journal Club:
    Thom C, Gilley DC, Hooper J, Esch HE. The scent of the waggle dance. PLoS Biol. 2007;5(9):e228 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0050228

  2. Frank Norman says:

    Martin – is that from the Bible or Goethe? 😉

  3. Martin Fenner says:

    Frank, you would have to ask the authors. But Corinna Thom is German, so she could have had Faust in her mind when coming up with the title.