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Strictly speaking | BOOKANEER

Bookaneer looks like a modern coinage – a word invented to make reading more attractive to small children by associating it with pirates. Indeed, an episode of the popular TV show for young learners, Sesame Street, has Elmo joining the “bookaneers”. But the term’s origins are much older, as revealed by Matthew Pearl in explanatory notes to his recently published novel, The Last Bookaneer. It was first used in 1837 by the poet Thomas Hood, in one of several letters he wrote to the magazine The Athenaeum on the subject of literary theft. His bookaneers took advantage of the lack of international copyright agreements to publish unauthorised editions of popular works, particularly in America. Charles Dickens was a victim of their activities, and satirised them in Martin Chuzzlewit. The word has long since fallen out of currency, but was revived with a new sense in an article on book theft in South Africa in The Conversation (29/6/2015). Here it refers to people shoplifting books that were previously banned, such as the works of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko, in a spirit of political activism. Like their punmates, the bloodthirsty buccaneers who terrorised the Caribbean in the 17th and 18th centuries, bookaneers might well become rehabilitated as swashbuckling heroes.

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