The Complete Guide To Completists
updated September 25, 2007
updated again, October 23, 2007
The ostensible goal of this post is to document in complete detail the origin of the word “completist” (officially only a noun, but sometimes accepted as an adjective) and some of the variations (eg, “completionist” which is not officially an English word and is often mistakenly used with the same meaning as “completist,” although with some notable exceptions) and misconceptions around this idea of being a completist, what drives a completist to be a completist, and so on. This post is also a kind of therapy — a therapy designed to beat out my completist tendencies, or to at least channel those tendencies in a more positive way. Finally, this post is yet another experiment in SEO keyword density, drawing unsuspecting web searchers to this blog. You wouldn’t believe how many people out there are searching Google about Ricola cough drops or Daniel Tammet’s artwork, so I say hey, why not explore the long tail of completists?
(I think this subject is fertile ground, and it cuts to the core of what a lot of the Internet has become. But it’s exhausting. Here we go…)
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a completist as one who wishes to have or collect complete sets of some particular items, and you’ll find the term most frequently used in the context of describing a person who must have all the written or musical works of particular authors/muscians. You’ll also find it usually used as a pejorative term… but we’ll get to that later.
Although the classic OED definition (and typical usage) of the word completist seems to imply an act of physical collection/ownership, I think it’s significant to note what is being described isn’t neccessarily someone who physically posesses or collects something. Rather, it describes someone who feels compelled to view or consume something — maybe they’ll own it afterwards, maybe not. Yes, I’m making this distinction which is a possible broadening of the word’s meaning (that is, if you’re a stickler for official, static word definitions). However, I think that it’s a distinction that’s been made important in our digital era because the content which the completist seeks — which is often music — has become separated from its “wrapper. ” This means the completist does not neccessarily need to own the CD, LP or whatnot (but they still might want to out of sheer completist object fetish… we’ll get to that later, also). On the other hand, some of the content exists ONLY in digital form, e.g. bootlegs, alternate versions, video clips and so on. I remember how, back in the heyday of Napster, I tried downloading every version of “Scarborough Fair” that I could find (don’t ask, it was one of those late night work sessions). You’d be amazed at what’s out there…. seriously. In the digital era, the job of the completist has been made both easier and harder.
Going back to the word itself: Most official dictionaries do not have “completist” as an adjective (but if they did, they might render the definition as follows: “pertaining to the tendency and desire to gather all the recordings of Sun Ra, all the drawings of Frank Lloyd Wright or Vincent van Gogh, all the U.S. 1999-2008 state quarters (both P and D series), all things Diana, Elvis, Coltrain or Cobain, and so forth“), however the word “completist” does frequently get used as an adjective and I think I’ve seen at least one contemporary/online dictionary that endorsed the adjective form of the word (“citation needed” as a Wikipedian completist might say).
I’m guessing that the pull towards adjective use has mostly to do with the suffix “ist,” which makes the word sound like it could be an adjective describing a person’s quality (it’s a tricky suffix that’s used in different ways, e.g. compare “conformist,” “defeatist,” “elitist” “fascist” and which also sounds just like the superlative suffix “est,” e.g., “quickest,” “nearest“) as opposed to an agent noun, that is, a words describing a person who does a certain thing (e.g. “ventriloquist,” “dentist,” “completist“). That said, I also think there is something about this idea of being a completist that begs for an adjective…. and maybe that’s why people started using a different word, “completionist” (but probably not… read on).
The word “completionist” on the other hand doesn’t exist in any of the official dictionaries, but is used quite a lot, usually as a mistake, i.e. when the word “completist” would have sufficed. However, you’ll sometimes see it used to convey the desire to completely finish off things of a transient nature, especially video games. According to Slangsite the word completionist is used to describe both (a) a person who feels compelled to complete something once they have started it; and (b) a person who collects certain related items (for example, all Star Wars related things) and buys eveything they can in the collection even if it is something that, on its own, the collector would not particularly like.
Example: I would not recommend the new Star Trek book to anyone except completionists.
Let’s remember Slangsite’s definition (a) –a person who feels compelled to complete something (“something” not a “collection of something”) once they’ve started it — and get back to it (along with the other dangling threads) a minute.
As for Slangsite’s definition (b), and as far as what I’ve seen in general, it turns out that the word “completionist” is used mainly as a noun just like “completist,” and, for the most part, it’s used with the same meaning as “completist.” In other words, it’s used out of ignorance. In fact, Slangsite’s example of use of “completionist” is very close to one of the most common uses of the word “completist” which you’ll find in music and film reviews. Reviewers always need new ways to diss things they don’t like, and a common quip might be “…unless you’re a Johnny Depp completist, you can skip seeing this movie.” Actually, the “(ARTIST NAME)”+”completists” combination is pretty much overused, as far as snarky film critic lines go.
There’s a reason for that: The earliest documented usage of “completist” in the OED is attributed to a book review in the New York Times published February 6, 1955 ( “Criminals at Large” by Anthony Boucher), with that same pejorative implication of “this work is not worth your interest for viewing, unless you are one of those indiscriminate collectors who are already obsessed with the subject.” The OED used to have the words “often indiscriminately” in their definition of completist, but I think the latest version has taken it out. I’ll have to check up that one (once again, “citation required”).
Incidentally, not to be outdone by the OED, some brilliant, completist word geeks with an interest (no surprise) in science fiction have tracked down citations for the word “completist” pre-dating the OED’s 1955 citation. Their earliest citation is itself a definition entry in a 1944 publication called Fancyclopaedia (13/1) by J. B. Speer,
Completist , a dope who tries to have a complete collection in some line. The line may be as broad as having all the prozines ever published, or as narrow as collecting all the Golden Atom tales or all official correspondence during ones incumbency in some office.
The word, then, pre-dates 1944…. but the irony of this whole endeavor is killing me, so let’s switch gears for a moment.
When I started writing this post, one of my first steps was to actually STOP writing and pick it up later. I think that writing stuff in a blog often gives people the feeling that they must fully capture whatever subject they are covering completely, in one sitting. While one does run the risk of losing momentum (e.g., while my second draft of this entry came only 5 days later, my third — and current — draft came over a month later) and leaving behind a trail of unfinished schemes and projects, the truly healthy thing to do is to back off and try to pick it up again later. This is called “incrementalism.” Incrementalism is one of the most effective ways to get great work done, including (not coincidentally) great completist works.
Contrary to what some people might have you believe, incrementalism is NOT the opposite of “completism” or “completionism,” but rather, the opposite of perfectionism. While perfectionism is admittedly part of the completist attitude, it’s only a small of it. In fact, it’s possible that feeling the urge to be a completist about something has nothing to do with perfectionism at all, but has everything to do with obsession. The fact that some successful completists may add a perfectionist flair to their collections (eg, keeping all those stamps, coins or comic books in professional grade storage conditions) isn’t fundamental to the pure obsessive fetishism underlaying the completist enterprise. Matthew Sumera has a wonderful description of Jazz completists, where you can see that it’s not about being perfect…. it’s about being COMPLETE… and completely obsessed.
There are other dimensions to this, for sure, not just having to do with the urge to collect things. There’s the idea that “when you start something, finish it” ….a kind of task-addiction. Aha. Remember that Slangsite definition for “completionist?” Maybe it’s an innate thing or maybe it’s socialized behavior, but people who have lots of unfinished work tend to experience a building up of anxiety and frustration. So completionism (if that’s what it’s called) is a kind of catharsis.
A mind map is begining to form, and in this diagram you have certain words floating around such as Completist, Completionist (sic) , Collections , Catalogs, Categorization and Taxonomies. We could start talking about Encyclopedias, Wikipedia and Diderot…but we won’t. You also have ideas about Perfectionism, Incrementalism, Obsession, Addiction, and The Good Feeling That Comes From Finishing Things That You Start.
On that last idea, the good feeling of that comes from finishing things that you start: Yes, it’s great — especially for a job “well done,” which in this case is “completely done.” However, there is something different about completing a completist/completionist project that is not the same as the feeling one gets with finishing ordinary projects. Personally, I enjoy finishing a project, and afterwards I’m usually pleased, elated, exhausted or some combination thereof. When it comes to things that resemble collections however, when I’m done… I’m done. It’s almost as if I purged it from my system. Maybe that’s just me. I know that some collectors will lovingly review their collections and spend countless hours fussing over the details of whatever it is that they’ve collected. I’m not sure if their completist enterprises are ever truly done, though.
Am I done with this post? Yes, I think I am.
Comments are welcome.