From the October 2011 issue of Out magazine, in a piece on screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (p.78) and the film J. Edgar:

Clint Eastwood directed J. Edgar, and Leonardo diCaprio plays the titular character.

I was struck by the choice of titular rather than title here; both are standard, but titular is more formal, and in the context of Out‘s breezy prose, I would have expected title character. The choice of titular caused me to entertain, for a centisecond or so, the possibility that the word was being used in contrast to actual or real, though in combination with character, that reading was preposterous.

That made me wonder about the history of titular.

NOAD2 lists the invidious ‘only in title or name’ sense first, and notes that it was the earlier sense (though we’d now be inclined to think of the ‘pertaining to a title or name’ sense as the “literal” sense of the word, making straightforward reference to title):

1 holding or constituting a purely formal position or title without any real authority : the queen is titular head of the Church of England | a titular post…

2 denoting a person or thing from whom or which the name of an artistic work or similar is taken : the work’s titular song…

ORIGIN late 16th cent. (in the sense [existing only in name] ): from French titulaire or modern Latin titularis, from titulus (see title ).

(I’ve omitted the clerical senses here.)

OED2 has, of course, a fuller story, with three relevant senses:

the ‘only in title or name’ sense (vs. real or actual) from 1611, but with limiting words like but, mere, only from 1591;

‘having a title of rank, titled’ from 1612;

‘of or pertaining to a title or name’ from 1656, with titular character first cited in 1889

Sometimes the history isn’t what you imagine.

Then there’s the (untrustworthy) Urban Dictionary, which includes several other uses, here, among them an ingenious invention:

A titular role is a role in which the character says the title of the movie or play or book.

In the movie Out of Africa, when Robert Redford is teaching Meryl Streep how to drive, and there is all this traffic and this man drives up beside them and says, “Aww boy, Im just so tired of all this traffic, I can’t wait until I get out of Africa.


In the movie Starwars, when that Raiders of the Lost Ark guy is teaching Luke how to drive. He’s teaching Luke how to drive the thing, and they are in the back messing with the feathers, and this stowe-away walks by and says, “Aww boy, Im just so tired of all these star wars.”

The man who says these lines has the title line, and the titular line. [by PatientJobe Nov 5, 2006]

(this use of titular line seems to be moderately frequent, but I haven’t found any uncontrived occurrences of titular role to refer to the character who utters the titular line) and an entry that describes the NOAD2 usage 2 as the “old usage”, vs. a racy “current usage”:

It used to mean “relating to a title”, but now the word is mainly slang for ‘a busty woman’. The ‘tit’ part of the word of course referring to the tits, and the ‘ular’ part of the word emphasizing the tit part, so the common definition of the word relates to a busty chick. [by EvaXephon Jul 25, 2006]

There seem to be some real occurrences of this jokey use of titular, but not nearly enough to make the word “mainly slang” for a busty woman.


5 Responses to “titular”

  1. Kathryn B Says:

    I think they’re just being mannered. Using titular is sort of a verbal flounce.

  2. Ken Callicott Says:

    The Urban Dictionary entries (re: Start Wars and Out of Africa) come from an Upright Citizen’s Brigade episode (“The Poo Stick” from Season 1).

  3. EvaXephon Says:

    Wow…I wrote that definition 5 years ago as a joke, and now it’s being cited in someone’s blog.

    I’ve never actually heard anyone use the word “titular” to describe a busty woman, myself. I just thought it would be an amusing pun.

    For example, the video game “BloodRayne” is named after the main character, Rayne, who has large breasts. She is the titular character, s referring to her with the word “titular” is accurate. It can also be an amusing play on words because such an uncommonly-used word will call attention to the first syllable and thus be an indirect reference to the character’s bosoms.

    For some people, at least – the same people who would giggle when hearing cockpit, cocktail, or cocky.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      There’s this problem with Urban Dictionary. When I don’t cite it, people write to complain that I’ve neglected its riches. When I do cite it, even with comments suggesting that the entries are just jokes (as in this case), people write to complain that I’ve been duped. Gradually I’m beginning to think that UD should just be treated as a giant collection of jokes, utterly worthless as a source of information about language use, but of possible value as a repository of language play. So now I’ll pay no attention to it; your jokes are safe from linguabloggers like me.

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