The classic composition book (left), long used by students for developing essays, taking notes and scribbling, has been transformed into the “Decomposition Book” – or at least, so it seems. Seeing one in a store requires customers to first make sense of the word in relation to the item sold: it’s hard to square a book commonly used for composing something with the contrasting idea of something decomposing (or is the book itself destined for the compost?).

Is it a new approach to learning? Or a clever turn of phrase to spark buying interest? According to, “decomposition” is a way of breaking down a problem. Making a cake, for example, requires a recipe, which decomposes the process into ingredients and steps. For an essay, it can mean analyzing or decomposing a topic by splitting it into parts, then synthesizing those elements to make a point. You’d be hard pressed, however, to find this definition of “decomposition” in dictionaries. Both Oxford Dictionaries and Merriam-Webster Dictionary define it as the state or process of rotting. Others come closer, such as the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, which provides a technical definition, “to divide into smaller parts, or to make something do this”.

Indeed, the Decomposition Book, which has existed at least since 2010, combines a bit of both; it’s “a new spin on an old concept” according to Made in the United States from 100% post-consumer-waste recycled paper, the books are printed with soy ink, and the paper is processed chlorine-free. In other words, they’re environmentally friendly composition books.

Initial confusion can turn into something refreshing, not least for the environment and language, as a new use for an old word vividly reflects the times. Put another way: we can always teach an old dog a new trick.


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