This essay explores the sudden popularity and redefinition of the word pornographie in France in the 1880s. Following the publication of Émile Zola’s novel Nana and the rise of a genre of cheap, bawdy newspapers in 1880, the French daily press knowingly “invented” the word pornographie to designate these sexually explicit publications. Reviving an esoteric word, the press redeployed it with a new meaning and a (concocted) origin narrative that highlighted both the word’s “newness” and Zola’s place in the “new” genre it designated. This reinvention and deployment of the word were driven by the evolving politics and economics of the daily press during the first decades of the Third Republic. Ultimately, this politically motivated, half-fabricated reinvention of the word pornographie culminated with its becoming the catchall term that would all but replace obscenity as a signifier of sexually charged representation in the twentieth century.

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