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When I was studying French at school, one of the words that most infuriated me was meilleur, which could mean “better” or “best”, according to context. To my pedantic 12-year-old mind, it just felt wrong, muddle-headed. Being best meant being best: you were top dog and, by definition, there was only one of you. To apply the same word to anyone who happened to be better than anyone else at anything was absurd.

Now, whenever I see the word “bestseller”, I think that the French, with their ambiguous meilleur, have got it spot on. That neat English “best”, suggesting a precision that does not exist, is a terminological outrage.

Once in a blue moon, a bestseller is truly a bestseller — that is, it has out-sold all other titles. I have no trouble with the Bible calling itself a bestseller, subject to a recount if publishers of the Koran demand one. But at all other times, a bestseller is no more than a betterseller: a book that has sold better than some other books over a given period.

A novel that has been 17th on the list for a week — perhaps because of a sudden surge in sales in Leamington Spa, where the author lives — then sinks without trace, will be labelled for all time, and in every subsequent edition, a bestseller. Then the author, ipso facto, becomes a bestselling author, and will be interviewed, with all ­solemnity, about his “new bestseller” — the book on which he is currently working — before a single reader has had the chance to buy a copy.

Yes, readers. They are the ones being short changed in this self-perpetuating cycle of deceit and exaggeration. If a supermarket gets caught selling “free-range” eggs from battery hens, it will be taken to court and face a hefty fine. Publishers who plaster the word “bestseller” on their products, without elucidating and justifying the term, should be treated in the same way.

The practice, dismayingly common, of putting the B-word on books, in large print, on the very first day they appear in shops is not just dishonest, but insults the intelligence of millions.

 
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