index.html Semiotics of Literary Titling:
Three Categories of Reference


Ibrahim Taha

University of Haifa







      The basic assumption is that a literary title, like the body of the text, includes various historical, cultural, biographical, literary, and stylistic signs. It may be termed the collection point or the melting pot of different types of raw materials. It processes, improves, and reproduces these raw materials in a certain dosage, which the author tries to adjust to the needs of both text and reader. Accordingly, I am referring to the relationship between the title and these factors as “mutual incorporation” or intertextuality, based on the three categories of reference: the title as a system of external reference, the title as a system of self-reference, and the title as a system of internal reference.




Introduction: Between naming and titling


Any case of naming and titling involves a purpose of identification.[1] This purpose is essentially technical, and is based on needs and considerations outside the named and titled object. The function of identification in such a case is to shorten and to summarize. Instead of embarking on a lengthy account of the main features and landmarks of New York City to identify this object for your reader or interlocutor you need only mention the name of the city, which is a combination of just two words. Shortening and summarizing catalyze communication among people, hence necessarily make it more efficient. However, the difference between naming and titling is not merely semantic but more significant, and may be summed up by the five following points.


1. Who/what is entitled to a name or a title? Since the name is given to a certain object for purposes of identification, the bearer of the name  must have a certain importance or significance, actual or potential, and there is interest in identifying it. Any human being must have a name by his/her definition as a human being: a social, communicative creature. In other words, naming is a function of communication. However, is any object entitled to a name? Theoretically yes, but in fact only an object of significance or which fills a special function for humans is entitled to a private name of its own. ‘Not everything is entitled to be titled, although everything is entitled to be named. Names can be given to anything, but titling calls for some special acknowledgment of value or relationship. A rock is not entitled to a title unless it is a special rock [. . .] Titles are names which have a sense; they call for responses’ (Fisher 1984: 298-299). Here we should distinguish the private from the collective behavior of an object. Trees as single items,  with no particular significance for humans, will probably comply with what language gives them: “forest”, “wood”, “grove”, and so on. But if this forest as a whole, or as a collective, carries specific significance for a group of people, it becomes entitled to its own name. Even when a particular tree from a forest has particular significance for a certain person, or a group of people, it too is entitled  to its own name, whether the whole forest has its own name or not. Semantically, the name refers to any material object of any kind, but not every object is entitled to such a name.  In art in general, and in literature in particular, matters are somewhat different. In literature we can speak of collective behavior of texts using terminology of genre such as novel, poetry, drama, short story, and the like. But the collective behavior of literary texts in terms of genre does not deny the right of every literary work to a specific title of its own. Moreover, the title of a collection of short stories does not replace the title which every short story in this collection is entitled to carry. This stresses the specific importance of every story as an independent verbal statement.


2. When is a name given and when a title? In certain cases the process of naming should be performed in advance. A daughter or a son is named immediately after birth or maybe even before. In other cases a name may be given to a street long after it has been paved. Whether a name is given before or after the object comes into existence we may speak of a separation or a detachment between the content of the name and the content of the object. You may give your daughter the name “X” while her qualities are “Y” (Fisher 1984: 288). The name does not require anything from the object and the object does not commit itself to fulfill the expectations aroused by the name. The naming process becomes a function of subjective considerations that are not necessarily related to the object itself (Levinson 1985: 38). Such considerations may be wishes (hoping that the object will fulfill the expectations aroused by the name) or a miming and copying of a previous name (of a famous person, a famous object, etc.) or the qualities of the name itself (a beautiful name, sounds nice or attractive, etc.); or perhaps the name is random, given automatically with the sole aim of identifying the object. When the name precedes the object, it has probably been given primarily for identification. When the object precedes the name, various considerations probably become more important than the technical objective of identification. When the name has been given for identification purposes it may replaced at will. But when the name of a literary work fills another function beyond identification we cannot speak of a detachment of the title from the work. First, in the case of titling a literary work the name is given only in retrospect. Unlike names, literary titles cannot precede the work of art, as will be shown below.


3. What is the position of the authority that gives the name and the title? In the case of a name the one who determines it, whether one person or a group, or a governmental, public, or independent body, is the only authority responsible for the content of such a name. Often the object does not take part in determining the name. When the object does not require any consideration of its specific qualities the chooser of the name grants himself freedom of action. The naming process allows freedom of expression to the authority that determines the name. The titling process demands some kind of reference to specific data of the literary work in the choice of title. These circumstances might mislead. In the case of naming we spoke of freedom of action, and on the other hand of determination. In the case of titling the  opposite is true: we have commitment, and on the other hand there is choice. In the case of naming, freedom of action means independence of the naming authority from the named object. In the case of titling, the commitment to refer to the data of a literary work, which is in itself an incomplete, undefined, and unfinished object, allows the titling authority to choose from various legitimate titles. Namely, the more undefined and inexplicit a literary work is the more options of choice there are among potential titles, and the more complicated the titling process becomes. In the case of naming, the naming authority is the only authority in this process, and in the case of titling the literary work becomes an important partner in it. If the titling is a process of choice, we should refer to the title as suggested, and not final, maybe even undemanding, in principle. But if the literary title is not proposed by the author himself but by another authority, this title is not binding, not even on the practical level of discussion, as will be shown below.


4. How do we treat the name and the title? In some cases the name is nothing but a means. If it is only for identification purposes it is pushed aside in the process of reference to its object. When we refer to a certain person or street, the name is the last element considered. In sum, the name is not an ontological part of the object itself. Usually the name is a verbal datum while the object is made of various materials. Moreover, the name does not have to reflect the qualities of an object, and often there can also be a relation of contradiction between them. In the case of titling we are speaking about one ontological identity, so the literary title is made up of the same language as the body of the text itself (Adams 1987: 7). In the reader’s reference to a literary work the name is the first semantic system to greet the reader. As stated by Anne Ferry, this reader cannot but be affected by it in some way when referring to the literary work as a whole (1996: 2). Like naming, literary titling is also a function of communication.[2] It includes, according to Hollander, ‘a basic designative or even ontological power’ (1975: 213).

5. What is the size of the name and the title? Since the name is not an integral part of the body of the object it represents, and since the name was given primarily for identification purposes, such a name will doubtless be as short as possible. If the name is a means,  this means need be only short and restricted for this function. A short name is more easily remembered than a long one. If the name is a means of identification it is important for it to be easily remembered. But a literary title which is an integral part of the body of a verbal text need not necessarily be short. If a name can be three words at most, a title may run over two lines. The author can afford to offer such a long title for three reasons: (a) the title is an integral part of the written text; (b) the reading of the entire text including the title is an act of more focused reference, through which all the verbal data of the text can be interpreted; (c) reading does not demand intensive memorization. The reader can refer to the title as a significant textual element any time he/she may want to read the text.



The title as a system of external reference


The literary title is undoubtedly an ontological part of the body of the text, as will be specified later on. However, the possibility of connecting the text itself with the extra-textual reality, and with the reader/addressee, should be stressed. The literary title, more than any semantic system in the text, fulfills a clearly representative role. According to Genette, the title directs itself to more people than the text itself (1988: 707). Levenston discusses extensively the ability of the title to serve as a source of contextualization of the literary text (1978: 63-87). The intertextual context of the literary title may be reflected in various ways, which may be classified into four major categories.


Reference to history

In this category the literary title refers to a historical datum in some way. It may refer to a historical or mythological character or to a certain historical event. This may happen in all literary genres, but especially in literary-historical work, which has a certain historical aspect. Such a title can be primary or secondary or auxiliary. In any case, such a title has some kind of relationship to history whether directly and explicitly or implied and indirect. This relationship, which in literary jargon may appear in terms of intertextuality, constitutes some sort of statement about the content of the text itself, as will be shown later on. What interests us at this stage is the level of historical intervention as determining the meaning of the text by means of the title. The main premise is that there is no literary title devoid of meaning. Accordingly, the meaning of the literary text, in whose representation the title also participates, is not unique to the author or the text itself. The title in such a case, namely the case of reference to history, serves as a mediator between the text and history. This mediation directs the reader to places where the literary meaning is found. The historical reference of such a title may definitely bear some kind of generic character, but not necessarily. The introduction of extra-textual elements into the specific title can usually be interpreted as an intervention in the process of interpreting the text. The author, by introducing historical elements into the literary text, is seen to intervene in the process of interpreting his text. The reference to history is one of the most significant symptoms of self-interpreting, namely the meaning given by the author to the text. When historical data appear in the literary title they transfer some kind of meaning from the public to the specific text, whereby the reader’s interpretive activity becomes easier.


Reference to genre

The basic assumption is that ‘different genres usually call for different conventions of titling’ (Levin 1977: xxxvi). Another variety of titling in the intertextual context is explicit indication of the genre of the text in a sub-title, for example, on the cover of the book (novel, short stories, poetry, drama, autobiography, historical novel, etc.). Such a title uses generic terminology to affect the reading and interpreting process. The concept of genre is a historical convention whose existence precedes the specific text (Taha 2000). Namely, the indication of the genre as a sub-title to the text is to a certain extent an external reference to history, which has the potential of elucidating data within the text. The reference to genre in the literary title (or alongside the title) first apprises the reader as to the components of the genre’s identity, so that he can equip himself with such tools and only then start reading. When the title equips the reader with such tools, which may affect the direction of reading and interpretation, it is an intervening title; but no judgmental position on this concept is adopted for the time being.


Reference to style

A variety of intertextual titles is a title that imitates the general literary norms of the time it appears or a certain style acceptable in a certain period. If, for instance, in a certain period long titles with inner rhyming were considered the norm, the author may be obliged to conform to it. The norm is in fact a function of collective behavior which becomes an extra-textual literary convention with binding rules that the author finds hard to ignore when titling his/her text. Convention (in literary style) becomes an active participant in determining the text’s title and its meaning. This partnership bites into the author’s role of titling without sharing it with others. As the literary norm (or literary style) gnaws at the author’s role it intervenes in the writing process as the genre intervenes in the process of writing the text. When this happens the author may be exempted from total and absolute responsibility for this title, which is determined in cooperation with other factors. Namely, the author relinquishes some of his right/duty to determine alone the meaning behind the title. Then the reading process demands some kind of proficiency in literary conventions and in the style prevailing during the period in which the text was written.

      Furthermore, the literary title may constitute some sort of reference to other literary titles even in a connotative way (Genette 1988: 717). It may appear in a parodic, ironic context, or be mere imitation. Namely, when the title constitutes a means of external reference, the type and meaning of such a reference should be observed. A literary title that refers to another title wishes to refer to it in terms of intertextuality, interpreted as an invitation to a simultaneous reading of two texts or more. In such a case the literary title serves to connect two texts or more. As such, the literary title is seen as a textual datum located close to the extra-textual reality, or at least located on the fringe between the text and the past heritage of texts. In both cases we are dealing with external reference to style.


 Reference to promotion

 Sometimes the literary title peeks beyond the extra-textual reality for reasons of marketing and distribution. The literary title here includes elements directed outwards in terms of arousing interest and curiosity. Considerations of marketing and promotion underlie the interest and the curiosity aroused by the title (al-Jazzar 1998: 7). ‘Literary titles are, after all, a form of advertising, and, assuming the product is both distinctive and appealing, a sample can be an extremely effective publicity device’ (Kellman 1975: 160). One way of arousing interest and curiosity is devising an odd title. Derrida, in his particular way, speaks about oddity of a title being capable of arousing expectations and promising the reader/listener different things (1981: 5-6). An odd title is a promising one. Considerations of promotion and marketing may be reflected in a sensational and dramatic title. Employment of such tricks in the literary title, according to Grivel and to Hoek, express the wish of the author to attract the attention of the reader/addressee, to appeal to him and to seduce him more than everything else.[3] In such a case, when the title becomes a tool of advertising and sales it may be seen as a label of identification oriented outwards rather than inwards. The exploitation of the position and representational power of the title is more familiar in verbal and visual communication in various art forms. This phenomenon also exists in literature, especially in detective, romantic, and science fiction texts and in many texts in the post-modern era. In “canonical” literature we find various elements and symptoms of dramatization, sense orientation, and defamiliarization, albeit at a lower frequency.

      I would attribute this phenomenon to the category of external reference for two inter-related reasons. (a) Extra-textual and extra-literary tools are used in order to directly approach a defined target public (a specific age group: youth, for instance; a certain sex: adolescent girls; a certain public with a specific cultural mentality: aficionados of detective stories and science fiction; etc.). Such a title is one of enticement and courtship. Through it the author woos a specific cohort of readers and tempts them to buy the product. (b) True, we cannot deny such a relationship between the title and the body of the text, but usually it is not deep and complex. Often it remains on the technical level only, that of simple and direct content.

      Those two reasons are causally and significantly connected, in that the weakness of relationship between the title and the body of the text results from the wish to court a certain public of readers with extra-textual tools. For these two reasons I would rather address this phenomenon in terms of external reference to promotion. Discussion of this variation recalls the distinction between naming and titling. If the title serves for external reference to promotion, and does not maintain a firm relation with the body of the text, we may consider it in terms of naming. Such a title seems to operate mainly on the identification level.

      So far I have discussed four varieties of literary titles with the potential of external reference. In all of them the titling process is exclusive to the author himself. Various external factors which take part in some way in this process share the reading process with the author. When this happens the title becomes the product of familiar extra-textual data which are familiar and well defined. Then the reader’s interpretation process is not dominated by the personal intentions of the author himself, and the informed reader has no problem dealing with such a title. No uniform or equal effect of all these four variations of external reference is evident. Some variations deeply affect the interpretation of the title in particular and the text in general; some exert a limited effect. In any event, these four variations indicate some kind of attempt to open the text so that a certain reader can use the external factors listed above to give meaning to the title and the text without having to invest any particular effort. I am certainly aware of the roughness involved in my explicit statements and generalizations. However, we should bear in mind that the discussion is in general terms, out of considerations of comparison and relativity as will be explained in the following sections. Instead of dealing with the private intentions of a specific author we are dealing with extra-textual factors. The title, in all its variety, with all the differences involved, intervenes, interprets, directs, and binds. If the title uses certain historical data, these direct the reader to resources to aid him in interpreting the text. If it employs generic terminology it directs him in advance to employ certain tools to handle the text better.

      In all these varieties we can treat the title in terms of intertextuality, a simple kind of intertextuality, what Genette calls “paratextuality” (1988: 692, 695). The title as para-text indicates a tendency to independence from the body of the text, or partial autonomy, or a wish to maintain a limited and technical relationship with the body of the text. When the extra-textual factors in these varieties detach the title from the body of the text such a title adds to various conditions that catalyze the reading and interpretation processes available to the reader. The title, as it were, is not exactly a textual element which, like any other textual element, also demands the reader’s attention. Any variety of literary title, especially with external reference, involves a certain degree of self-interpretation. The author, in such a case, becomes the first literary critic to interpret somehow his own text.[4] When the interpreted title becomes an interpreting statement the author becomes a reliable source of binding interpretation. Hirsch spoke about the need to identify the author’s intentions within his text, so we may ask, is there a better source than the title, as a defined system of signs and a concentration of the author’s intentions, to depend on in the process of text interpretation?



The title as a system of self-reference


Just as the literary title can maintain a complex system of connections with historical factors, so can it refer to private factors somehow linked with the author’s biography, work, and style. In this category of self-reference the job of the critic and the researcher becomes more difficult than in the foregoing category. It is easier to identify public factors and data than private, specific, and local ones. The direction of this article is from the outside inwards, and from the general to the particular. This category of self-reference can be divided into three varieties.


Autobiographic self-reference

A literary title may refer to a certain item from the biography of the author explicitly or implicitly. The item may be a certain space in which the author develops, a certain period in his life, a central event in his life, a character close to him, and so on. Note that the items that can be expressed in the title of a literary text do not necessarily mean that the text is autobiographic. Autobiographic elements integrated in the title of the text or in the body of the text do not change the text from fiction to history (autobiography). It is commonly thought that in any literary text he writes the author mixes some elements from his own biography.

      A title with autobiographic signs seems to promise the reader a realistic text, or at least it looks like that, and he should prepare himself for such a kind of literature reading. Among the tools the reader may like to acquire for such a reading are knowledge of and familiarity with the author’s biography. This notion may create the misleading impression that a successful/true reading of the text demands direct and explicit reference to this. Still, such knowledge or familiarity may indirectly contribute to such a reading. As in the foregoing varieties, in the case of autobiographic self-reference too we may refer to the relationship between the literary title and data from the author’s biography in terms of intertextuality. Any reference of any kind entails a certain intertextuality, which requires simultaneous reading of two sources or more. Whatever the type of autobiographic element in the title, such a title demands reading on three levels: (a) the technical level, to acquire knowledge and information from the author’s life; (b) the analytical level, to know how to relate this knowledge to the body of the text; (c) the level of evaluation and judgment, to know how to use all this in order to search for and create the general meaning of the text. This title, as mentioned in the previous section, seems to contain two opposite things. On the one hand it gives the reader direction, and on the other it sends him in search of complete details in the body of the text, but more especially outside the text (in the author’s biography). The literary title, especially such a title, is on the edge between what is explicit and what is hinted (Ferry 1996: 2). The main difference between such a title and another title with external reference, as mentioned in the previous section, seems to be that the reader in his reading process cannot disregard the historical data ensconced in the title. Those elements can dominate the process of text interpretation, but the self-reference type of title discussed here lets the reader easily ignore them in the process of giving meaning to the text. The author’s biography seems less exigent and demanding than history. Here we come to the assumption that a self-reference title is less demanding than titles with external reference of any kind, so it is less explicit and defined. It becomes more doubting, and requires the reader to invest greater effort in the interpretation process. A title with self-reference, unlike the titles discussed before, allows the reader more independence and less attachment to extra-textual data included in it. The textual demands are strengthened when the extra-textual demands of the title are weakened, so the reader has to invest more effort in the process of text interpretation.

      In many cases the title of a historical novel is seemingly closer to history than the fiction, so it becomes a historical datum presumably more than a pure textual datum. In self-reference, however, the relation of the title to history becomes weaker and its relation with the body of the text is strengthened. Presumably, the more detached the title is from the extra-textual reality and the closer and more engulfed it is in the body of the text, the more obscured it becomes and the more interpretation possibilities occur; thus the reader’s position is strengthened.


Literary self-reference

In addition to autobiographic self-reference a literary title can refer to previous works by the same author or to his characteristic style. The literary self-reference of the title may be to his other titles or to complete works. It may be reflected in recurring use of a certain style of titling. In this case the titling process is a function of knowledge, style, education, and so on. When the author makes extensive use of a certain style it becomes easier to identify him by the title. The literary self-reference in one title can be manifested in two ways: (a) reference to other titles or works; (b) general reference to the characteristic style of the author, such as his/her tendency to choose long titles, double titles, dramatic titles, or odd titles. It is difficult to talk of detachment between literary works by the same author. The author repeats himself, wittingly or not. Therefore intertextual relationships between the title and previous texts of the author in terms of literary self-reference can be tested.

      A literary title can refer to previous works of the author while repeating a certain motif or idea which appeared in previous writings. Some may argue that all this may be manifested in the body of the text and not in the title. This is a logical assumption, but as mentioned, the title, in contrast to the body of the text, is a means of concentration and focus; this subject will be clarified later on. The title’s being separate from the body of the text shows that it has a special position in the process of both reading and writing. The literary title is characterized by its ability to include numerous data in a minimum of words in an extremely dense semantic system. Therefore, the literary title is in fact the representative address of the entire text. It is as if the titling process is accomplished retrospectively, only after the entire reading process is over.

      The intertextual connection between the literary title and earlier literary texts of the author can be reflected in a certain style characteristic of the author. Just as we can speak about the “uniform” or general style of the author, which is evident in various forms throughout his work, we can also talk about a recurring style in titles. A style is something undefined, hence not final. Many factors can intervene in the definition of the author’s style and the identification of its characteristics. Some of these factors are known to the author and the reader and some are not known to either, not even to the author himself. The author presumably invests efforts in determining the title of his literary work. If so, the literary title is a summary of a thinking process involving specific considerations (related to a specific text) and more general considerations of knowledge, education, character, culture, economics, religion, politics, ideology, and so on. All those considerations are reflected in the literary text especially its title.

      When the factors participating in the design of the title are somewhat ambiguous, as in the case of stylistic self-reference, the intertextual relations between the title and various data are examined by a slow and difficult process. We may examine the style of the author by scrutinizing his literary lexicon in several works or in his entire work, and we can subject his title/titles to the same scrutiny. In any case the reader must perform a so-called “preparatory reading” of the writer’s previous work, otherwise he won’t be able to deal with the specific title successfully.

      A stylistic-semantic examination of a literary title and its intertextual relation with all the literary titles of a certain author may be performed in various ways. Examples are perusal of the length of the title (short or long), its components (main title, subtitle), its syntactic type (noun phrase, verb phrase, question, exclamation), the semantic relations among its verbal components, the associations aroused by these components, and more. This research method may provide certain tools for scrutinizing the matter in some way.



The title as a system of internal reference


The foregoing sections considered the relationships between the literary title and extra-textual factors in various fields, whether historical or personal. In this section we deal with the complex system of relationships between the title and the body of the text. This is the most complicated relationship and may be the most important one among the three categories of literary titles discussed here. ‘The important thing is not the difference of a title from all other titles but its specific relation to the rest of the work’ (Adams 1987: 11).

      The literary title provides the reader with a means of internal reference to the body of the text. This referring can be manifested in various forms: the title can reinforce and affirm the thesis of the text. It can add information which does not exist in the text (Levenston 1978: 65). It can focus the reader’s attention on textual elements. It can maintain an ironic relation with the text. It can maintain a relation of opposition and conflict with the text. Levinson places all the possible relationships between the literary title and the body of the text in three categories: the referential category, the interpretative category, and the additive category.[5] We could argue with the details of this taxonomy or we could agree with it. On one thing we cannot agree with Levinson, the use of the term “neutrality”. A neutral title, according to him, is a simple title automatically chosen: he mentions Moby Dick by Melville, David Copperfield by Dickens, and Madam Bovary by Flaubert as specific examples (1985: 34). A literary title may be simple and automatic but it can never be neutral. Without detailing the relationships between these titles and their text we can definitely refer to them as types of explicatory titles carrying meanings of reinforcement, stressing, and focusing (Kellman 1975: 160).

      If this is a ‘true title’, in Adams’s terms, namely a title chosen by the author himself and not by any other external factor (editor, publisher, etc.) (Adams 1987: 9; Levinson 1985: 33), we must attribute a certain meaning to it, be it the simplest and most limited. Despite Ferry’s distinction between ‘title about the text’ and ‘title of the text’ (1996: 211), in both cases a certain relationship exists between the text and its title. Since the literary title is given to the text only in retrospect, giving a title after writing the text is some kind of self-interpretation. The author in this case becomes, as said, the first interpreter of his work; the title given by the author himself constitutes a statement binding upon the reader. Hirsch spoke of the need to identify the author’s system of intentions, and Fisher spoke of the title’s power to concentrate the author’s intentions in it[6]. If the title is the essence of the author’s system of intentions we may search for the complete details in the body of the text (Hamdawi 1997: 107-110). If the title has the power to concentrate and focus, it may be treated as a certain type of motif or leitmotiv. What is hidden in the title may exceed what is explicit. We may search for the title elements scattered throughout the text: a sentence, a word, a metaphor, a motif, a character, an event, time-space, and so on. We speak about the relation between the title and the body of the text in terms of self-reference. Whatever the type of this reference, the literary title is a function of four components: (a) the data of the text; (b) the intentions of the author; (c) the literary and cultural conventions of the period; (d) the status and level of the reader. Since the last three components may be represented in a specific text a literary title may be implied in the text. I do not underestimate the importance of extra-textual considerations that may participate in some way in the determination of the title of a literary text, but the text itself is the basic premise of the titling process. As stated earlier, according to Genette, the title is some type of para-text. I prefer to term it a sub-text.  A para-text may create the impression of a title that is an independent text, while the concept of sub-text indicates two major characteristics of the title: the implicitness (incorporation) of the title in the body of the text; and the limited and restricted dimensions of the title compared with the body of the text. The title’s formal detachment from the body of the text attests to a relationship of mutual fusion/incorporation between the two. On the one hand the text is somehow represented by the title, and on the other the title is a concentration of elements scattered through the text (Cohen 1985: 193).[7] In addition to this mutual incorporation, the ability of the title to incorporate various extra-textual factors has been stressed throughout this paper.

      The relationship between the literary title and the body of the text as “mutual incorporation” is another term for intertextuality, or more precisely, intra-intertextuality. The semiotic approach of the discussion does not allow consideration of the title as neutral, objective, or independent. The process of text interpretation requires this type of relationship between the title and the body of the text. ‘A title is not only a name, it is a name for a purpose’ (Fisher 1984: 289). If we accept this basic premise we may treat the title in terms of hermeneutics, a change which “aids” in the interpretation of the text.[8]

      To examine the importance of the title chosen by the author himself, the true title, researchers suggest a simple exercise: to replace the true, original title of the text by other titles and to compare them, considering the effects on the process of text interpretation (Levinson 1985: 34). To examine the importance of the literary title I would suggest removing the title, presenting the text without a title, and asking the readers to propose their own titles without knowing of the existence of the true title so as not to be influenced by it. Then those suggestions could be stated against the true title and their effects on the process of text interpretation. This method would demonstrate how the absence of the true title may damage the process of reading and interpreting the text. The process of reading a literary text without an original title is similar, to a certain extent, to the wandering of a tourist abroad without a guide.[9]  Even if this guide is very inept he can make the tourist feel safer, he can make her feel there is someone to turn to in case of need. The guide fosters feelings that there is some kind of authority to take responsibility and that there is backing. Beyond such feelings, experience shows that many literary texts published without an original title “leave” the reader with the difficulty attempting to find their meaning.

      The exercise proposed here raises thoughts concerning the raw materials composing the literary title. Can a title such as 3X/Y4 be given to a text? Theoretically it can. So why do not authors dare to give such a title to their works? Incidentally, I have nothing against such a title, although a word-based work “prefers” a suitable word-based title.[10] Or is this assumption nothing but the product of habit and tradition? Still, if the above title is integrated in the general meaning of the literary text it is legitimate and acceptable, except that such a title was not meant to fulfill a function of identification.





First, the title of a literary text is a textual datum; and both text and title undergo similar processes. But the literary title acquires its unique quality by being separated from the body of the text. This separation is not merely a formal one, namely just meant to serve the purposes of marketing and identification. This is one of the main differences between the name of a certain product/object and the literary title, as mentioned in the introduction to this article. The locational separation between the title and the literary text reinforces and stresses the status of the title versus the body of the text. The emphasis on this special location encourages the researcher to discuss all the aspects of a literary title, even if the separation itself is not a necessary condition of this discussion. Various textual data in the body of the text stimulate long, profound, and intriguing discussions. The separation from the body of the text allows the title to serve as the essence or the heading, while the body of the text serves for detailing. In addition, this separation introduces logical order in the general structure of the text: it directs the process of reading from concise forms to detailed forms, then back to more concise ones.

      If the literary title sometimes functions like this conclusion to the article, it is vital to consider the contribution of the literary title to the process of text interpretation, the nature of this contribution, and the need for such a contribution. Just as we may question the need for this conclusion, and of other summaries too, the researcher is entitled to doubt the need for a literary title, should it replicate the role of the summary. Is there any need, in the post-modern era, for this kind of service by the title, as set out in the body of this article? This is a legitimate question in principle. But if the title exists, it must acquire some semiotic character.

      The basic assumption is that a literary title, like the body of the text, includes various historical, cultural, biographical, literary, and stylistic considerations. It may be termed the collection point or the melting pot of different types of raw materials. It processes, improves, and reproduces these raw materials in a certain dosage, which the author tries to adjust to the needs of both text and reader. Accordingly, I have referred to the relationship between the title and these factors as “mutual incorporation” or intertextuality, based on the three categories of reference described.





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Derrida, J. 1981. Title (to be specified). Sub-Stance 31: 5-22.


Ferry, A. (1996). The Title to the Poem. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.


Fisher, J. 1984. Entitling. Critical Inquiry 11: 286-298.


Genette, G. 1988. Structure and functions of the title in literature. Critical Inquiry 14: 692-720.


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Hollander, J. 1975. Vision and Resonance: Two Senses Poetic Form. New York: Oxford University Press.


Kellman, S. 1975. Dropping names: The poetics of titling. Criticism 17: 152-167.


Levenston, E.A. 1978. The significance of the title in lyric poetry. Hebrew University Studies in Literature 6: 63-87.


Levin, H. 1977. The title as a literary genre. Modern Language Review 72: xxiii-xxxvi. 


Levinson, J. 1985. Titles. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 44: 29-39.


Potter, T.M. 1999. “Si Mohammes!”: Names as Address Forms in Moroccan Arabic. Names: A Journal of Onomastics 47/2: 157-172.


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[1].   A proper name, according to Terrence Potter, functions “as a form of address. [. . .] An address form is a vocative used to call or to secure the attention of an addressee. Putting a name to such use is highly context-dependent communicative behavior” (Potter 1999: 157).

[2].   Genette stresses this communicative nature as follows; “As in the case of any instance of communication, the title at the least is composed of a message (the title itself), a ‘destinateur,’ and an intended recipient” (1988: 705-706).  

[3].   According to Charles Grivel, a literary title may have three major functions, “first, identify the work; second, designate its content; third, highlight it”. Hoek formulates these functions integrating them into his inclusive definition of the title as follows: “A series of linguistic signs which can appear at the head of a text to designate it, to indicate its general content and to appeal to the public aimed it” (Quoted by Genette 1988: 708).

[4].   “When settling on such titles  [La Chute, a novel by Camus], authors are functioning no differently than literary critics. They are talking about the work, signaling its major themes and emphases” (Kellman 1975: 155). 

[5].   “Referential titles are simply those which serve to label their bearers and facilitate intercourse with them, and which do not introduce any perturbations into the arena of meaning. Interpretive titles, as one might imagine, serve to announce or support an interpretation of the work as a whole, in a fairly sharp and central way. Additive titles are those which contribute to meaning in virtue of being elements which a comprehensive assessment of the work cannot ignore, but without declaring interpretations themselves or providing the keynotes of such” (Levinson 1985: 37).  In addition to Levinsons’ tripartite division of titles, there are various divisions and classifications of titles. See, for instance, Genettes’ and Levenstons’ divisions into four types (1988: 712-713; 1978: 64).

[6]. “Titles [according to Fisher] do identify in representational portraiture, and, in so doing, they say something about the work as well as the alleged sitter or the intention of the artist” (Fisher 1984: 292).  

[7] Jerrold Levinson refers to this function of the literary title using the term focusing: “What a  focusing title does is select from among the mainelements of core content one theme to stand as the leading one of the work. […] What a focusing title does then is suggest which of the contending themes should be given center place in interpreting the work and organizing one’s appreciation of it” (1985: 35).

[8] “The unique purpose of titling [According to Fisher] is hermeneutical: titles are names which function as guides to interpretation” (1984: 288). “Titles in such circumstances serve as presumptive guides to perception of a certain sort” (Levinson 1985: 30).

[9] Robert Ricatte stresses this function using an interesting simile, “A title is needed, because the title is a sort of flag toward which one directs oneself. The goal is then to explain the title” (Quoted by Genette 1988: 701).

[10] “It is important to note before proceeding that titles, whatever role they play, are always in words. They are never in patches of color or in nonverbal noises; and even if the words are words for numbers, they are yet words. They may be grammatically precise. They may be fragments. They may be comprehensible or incomprehensible, but titles are given in a language spoken by persons in discourse. They are names. A name is the verbal expression which we assign to something to which we wish to refer repeatedly” (Fisher 1984: 287).


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