Zen and the Art of “Zen and the Art of…”

A 2007 ad for "Zen" liqueur. The brand is still around today.

It all started with Robert Pirsig’s classic (and, mega-selling) book, Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. (Update: as a reader notes in the comments below, that’s actually not quite right. Pirsig’s title was actually aping another’s.) Now take a look around, at article titles, at book titles, seminar titles, blog titles… Being someone who notices these things (i.e., someone with nothing better to do), I kept a list of some of the more surprising ones, things like: Zen and the Art of Quilting. Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating. Zen and the Art of Waitering. Zen and The Art of Standup ComedyZen and the Art of Snowplow Maintenance. Zen and the Art of Articulating Dolls Using Balljoints. And then there are all the other commercial uses of Zen — one example is shown here, but there are many, many more, believe me.

Eventually, my list got too long, too unsurprising, to bother with anymore. “Zen” is everywhere, at least in name. In fact, a recent SF Gate story tells us, “There are 657 live trademarks containing the word ‘Zen’.” So the word is taking on all sorts of uses — and being used, as is the fashion in marketing and copywriting these days, as a verb: 

Zen can be combined with mail to describe “an incoming e-mail message with no message or attachments.” Zen spin is a verb meaning “to tell a story without saying anything at all.” And to zen a computing problem means to figure it out in an intuitive flash – perhaps while you’re plugged into the earphones of your Zen MP3 player, now available from Creative with a 16GB capacity.

For more, Zen your browser over to “Zen and the Art of Naming a Startup,” at SF Gate. And if you’ve seen a particularly interesting or amusing example of this phenomenon, be sure to Zen it in the comments below.


  1. Homohabilis
    Posted September 14, 2013 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    Actually, it all started with Eugen Herrigel's classic "Zen and the Art of Archery", published in 1948, one of the first works to bring Zen to the attention of the West. Pirsig's title was an in-group reference to Herrigel's book, the first (I believe) of what has, as you say, become a flood of similar titles, increasingly frivolous. See the Wikipedia article on "Zen and the Art of Archery" for more.

  2. Homohabilis
    Posted September 14, 2013 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

    Oops, actually "Zen IN the Art of Archery". Apologies.

  3. Posted September 15, 2013 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    You're quite right. Thanks; will amend.

  4. jack thomas
    Posted September 19, 2013 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    great post

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