Category Archives: education

Hello Girls and Yeomanettes in World War I

From Code Girls, by Liza Mundy (Hachette, 2017), Kindle pp. 76, 81:

Parker Hitt was a champion of women and a believer in women’s intellectual abilities as well as their bedrock stamina. In Europe, Parker Hitt was charged with overseeing battlefield communications for the Army’s Signal Corps. The Americans, British, and French strung phone lines around Europe and needed telephone operators to connect the calls. Switchboard operation was women’s work, and male soldiers refused to do it. French operators were not as adept as American ones, so the Signal Corps recruited U.S. switchboard operators who were bilingual in English and French and loaded them into ships bound for Europe. Known as the “Hello Girls,” these were the first American women other than nurses to be sent by the U.S. military into harm’s way. The officers whose calls they connected often prefaced their conversations by saying, “Thank Heaven you’re here!” Parker Hitt pushed for the Hello Girls to be allowed to prove their competence and courage. They did so, remaining at their posts even when ordered to evacuate during bombing in Paris, and moving to the front lines, where they worked the switchboards during explosions and fires.

The U.S. Navy, meanwhile, was developing its own female secret weapon, as part of a code-breaking operation that, true to the prevailing climate, was kept jealously separate from the Army or any other rival entity. Upon America’s entry into World War I, the country had struggled to quickly enlarge its modest career Navy, and created a men’s naval reserve that permitted civilian men to serve during wartime, often as specialists with expertise in areas such as math or science. Even this influx wasn’t enough, however, and it occurred to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels to wonder aloud whether there was any law “that says a yeoman must be a man.” Remarkably, there was not. Nowhere in the Naval Reserve Act of 1916 did it say that a naval yeoman had to be male. Thanks to that loophole, American women were permitted to enlist in the naval reserves during World War I, and the designation “Yeoman (F)” was created. The move was controversial, even shocking, to the public, but many more women hastened to enlist than the Navy had expected. To the women’s disappointment, they were not allowed to serve on ships (nurses, who were in a different category, could do so) but mostly worked as clerks and stenographers, facilitating the towering stacks of paperwork that the naval bureaucracy generates—the original yeoman’s work. During the first global conflict of the twentieth century, eleven thousand American women served as Yeoman (F)—also called yeomanettes.

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U.S. Army vs. Navy Codebreaker Recruitment

From Code Girls, by Liza Mundy (Hachette, 2017), Kindle pp. 26-27, 32-38:

The Navy was a service that cared about status. It wanted women who were well connected socially, and there also seems to have been interest in knowing what the women looked like. The application asked that the women submit passport photos, some of which excited a bit of commentary. “I might point out that the passport photos will scarcely do justice to a number of the members of the course,” enthused Harvard’s Donald Menzel, saying that the women’s “appearance is such that large-scale photographs would be a grace to any naval office.”

Around the same time, another meeting was taking place. Twenty women’s colleges sent representatives to the elegant Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., where the U.S. Army was working to forge its own ties with institutions that schooled women. Already it was clear that educated women would be needed for the broader war effort. As the country coped with an acute labor shortage, the inspector general of the Department of Labor noted that adult civilians would not be sufficient to stock an economy bereft of its male workers. Students would be needed, and it made sense to start with the female ones. So the Army worked to tap its own network of women’s colleges before the Navy could reach them; indeed, the Navy suspended its own efforts to set up training at Connecticut College when it learned that the Army had gotten there first.

Disparate as their backgrounds were, the women who answered these summonses—that of the Navy and that of the Army—had a handful of qualities in common. They were smart and resourceful, and they had strived to acquire as much schooling as circumstances would permit, at a time when women received little encouragement or reward for doing so. They were adept at math or science or foreign languages, often all three. They were dutiful and patriotic. They were adventurous and willing. And they did not expect any public credit for the clandestine work they were entering into.

One of the best code-breaking assets is a good memory, and the only thing better than one person with a good memory is a lot of people with good memories. Every step of the process—the division of enemy traffic into separate systems; the noting of scattered coincidences; the building up of indexes and files; the managing of vast quantities of information; the ability to pick out the signal from the noise—enabled the great intuitive leaps. The precursor work during the war was almost always done by women, and many of those intuitive leaps were made by women as well.

Precisely because they did not expect to be celebrated or even promoted, the women tended to be collegial. This was in marked contrast to the Navy men—especially—who were fighting for recognition in a hotly careerist service. “The women who gathered together in our world worked very hard. None of us had an attitude of having to succeed or outdo one another, except in trivial ways,” recalled Ann Caracristi years later. “I mean, you wanted to be the first to solve a particular problem, or you wanted to be the first to get this recovery. But there was very little competition for, you know, for money, or anything of that nature, because everybody really assumed that when the war was over we would be leaving… The majority of the people considered it a temporary way of life.”

What is interesting about this generation of women is that they did understand that at some point they might have to work for pay. Forged by the Depression, they knew they might have to support themselves, even on a teacher’s salary, no matter how “good” a marriage they did or did not make. Some were sent to college with the idea that it would be ideal to meet a man, but their degree would permit them to “fall back” on teaching school. And some women went to college because they were, in fact, ambitious and planned to compete for the few spots in law or medical schools that were available to them.

Suddenly these women were wanted—for their minds. “Come at once; we could use you in Washington,” was the message conveyed to Jeuel Bannister, a high school band director who had taken an Army course on cryptanalysis at Winthrop College, in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

In the 1940s, the American labor force was strictly segregated by gender. There were newspaper want ads that read “Male Help Wanted” and others that read “Female Help Wanted.” For educated women, there was a tiny universe of jobs to be had, and these always paid less than men’s jobs did. But it turned out that the very jobs women had been relegated to were often the ones best suited to code-breaking work. Schoolteaching—with the learning it required—was chief among these. Knowledge of Latin and Greek; a close study of literature and ancient texts; facility with foreign languages; the ability to read closely, to think, to make sense of a large amount of data: These skills were perfect.

But there were other women’s jobs that turned out to be useful. Librarians were recruited to make sense of discarded tangles of coded messages. “Nothing had been filed. It was just a mess,” said Jaenn Coz, one of a number of code-breaking librarians who came to work for the Navy. “They sucked us out from all over the country.” Secretaries were good at filing and record keeping and at shorthand, which is itself a very real kind of code. Running office machines—tabulator, keypunch—was a woman’s occupation, and thousands were now needed to run the IBM machines that compared and overlapped multidigit code groups. Music majors were wanted; musical talent, which involves the ability to follow patterns, is an indicator of code-breaking prowess, so all that piano practicing that girls did paid off. Telephone switchboard operators were unintimidated by the most complex machines. In fact, the communications industry from its origins was one that had been considered suitable for women. Boys delivered telegrams, but women connected calls, in large part because women were considered more polite to callers.

Character also mattered. Here again, women’s colleges were ideal. All the schools had codes of comportment—curfews, housemothers, chaperones, rules about not smoking in your room and not having men visit you in private and not having sex and not wearing trousers or shorts in public. All of this enabled the women to sail through the military’s background checks. Bible colleges were even better; many of those graduates didn’t drink.

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The 1941 Boom in U.S. Codebreaking Jobs

From Code Girls, by Liza Mundy (Hachette, 2017), Kindle pp. 22-25:

During World War II, code breaking would come into its own as one of the most fruitful forms of intelligence that exists. Listening in on enemy conversations provides a verbatim, real-time way to know what that enemy is thinking and doing and arguing about and worrying over and planning. It provides information on strategy, troop movements, shipping itineraries, political alliances, battlefield casualties, pending attacks, and supply needs. The code breakers of World War II advanced what is known as signals intelligence—reading the coded transmissions of enemies, as well as (sometimes) of allies. They laid the groundwork for the now burgeoning field of cybersecurity, which entails protecting one’s data, networks, and communications against enemy attack. They pioneered work that would lead to the modern computing industry. After the war, the U.S. Army and Navy code-breaking operations merged to become what is now the National Security Agency. It was women who helped found the field of clandestine eavesdropping—much bigger and more controversial now than it was then—and it was women in many cases who shaped the early culture of the NSA.

The women also played a central role in shortening the war. Code breaking was crucial to Allied success in defeating Japan, both at sea and during the bloody amphibious assaults on Pacific islands against a foe that was dug in, literally—the cave fighting toward the end of the war was terrible, as were kamikaze attacks and other suicide missions—and willing to fight to the death. And in the all-important Atlantic theater, U.S. and British penetration of the Nazi Enigma cipher that German admiral Karl Dönitz used to direct his U-boat commanders helped bring about the total elimination of the Nazi submarine threat.

The chain of events that led to the women’s recruitment was a long one, but a signal moment occurred in September 1941, when U.S. Navy rear admiral Leigh Noyes wrote a letter to Ada Comstock, the president of Radcliffe College, the women’s counterpart to Harvard. For more than a year the Navy had been quietly recruiting male intelligence officers from elite colleges and universities, and now it was embarking on the same experiment with women. Noyes wanted to know whether Comstock would identify a group of Radcliffe students to be trained in cryptanalysis. He confided that the Navy was looking for “bright, close-mouthed native students”—that is, high-achieving women who had the sense and ability to keep a secret and who had been born in the United States and were free of close ties with other nations.

“Evidence of a flair for languages or for mathematics could be advantageous,” Noyes said, adding that “any intense sociological quirks would, of course, be undesirable.” Without stating what such “quirks” might be, the admiral suggested that a handful of promising seniors could enroll in a training course the Navy had developed.

“In the event of total war,” Noyes told her, “women will be needed for this work, and they can do it probably better than men.”

Ada Comstock was happy to comply. “It interests me very much and I should like to take whatever steps would be thought serviceable,” she promptly wrote to her friend Donald Menzel, an astronomy professor at Harvard who was serving as a point person for the broader naval recruiting effort. Astronomy is a mathematical science and a naval one—for centuries, navigation was done using the position of the sun and the stars—and many of the instructors who taught the secret course would come from the field.

At the Navy’s request, Comstock also approached leaders of other women’s schools. These deans and presidents were devoted to the cause of educating women and eager to defend liberty and freedom of thought against fascism and totalitarian belief systems. They also were keen to develop career opportunities for their students. The leaders savvily perceived that war might open up fields—and spots in graduate schools—that up to now had been closed to women. Even before Comstock received the Navy’s letter, many of the leaders had been strategizing over how they could provide what Virginia Gildersleeve, dean of Barnard College, called “trained brains” to a war effort that would depend on advances in science and math.

The women’s college leaders met at Mount Holyoke on October 31 and November 1, 1941, with representatives from Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Vassar, Wellesley, Radcliffe, Smith, and Mount Holyoke attending. Comstock told them about the Navy’s request and said Radcliffe would participate. She distributed some materials the Navy had developed: a “Guide for Instructors” and an “Introduction to Students.” The idea was that selected students would take the course during the remainder of their senior year, then go to work for the Navy, in Washington, as civilians. The “Guide for Instructors” assured them that no prior experience was necessary and that they would receive a “gouge,” or answers to the problems. The instructors would be given a few texts to jump-start their own education, including a work called Treatise on Cryptography, another titled Notes on Communications Security, and a pamphlet called The Contributions of the Cryptographic Bureaus in the World War—meaning World War I, the so-called war to end all wars.

The result was the wave of secret letters that appeared in college mailboxes in the fall of 1941, summoning surprised young women to secret meetings. Most were in the top 10 percent of their class, selected based on academic performance as well as character and loyalty and grit.

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Other Alphabetical Orders in the Olympics

From A Place for Everything, by Judith Flanders (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 239-240:

BY THE MID-TWENTIETH CENTURY, alphabetical order was no longer considered a historical quirk, a creation that over seven hundred years had spread its tentacles into a fair number of different fields. Instead, it was seen, unthinkingly, as something intrinsic, and, more importantly, something that developed nations all shared. According to the original International Olympic Committee rules of 1921, the opening ceremony to each Olympic Games saw the national teams entering “in alphabetical order by country.” In 1949 that was clarified, the regulations now specifying that the teams were to enter “in the alphabetical order of the language of the host nation.” Yet when the 1964 Olympics were held in Japan, for the first time in a country with a nonalphabetic script, the IOC simply shrugged its institutional shoulders and team entry was ordered by English-language place names, as written in the roman alphabet. By then, at least to western European minds, anywhere without an alphabet was not just different; instead, it was that dreadful thing—not modern. It was not until 1988, when South Korea hosted the games, that a nation stood up and made the alphabetic world aware that alphabetical order was not Holy Writ, and many countries and civilizations had managed perfectly well for millennia without it and, every bit as importantly, were continuing to do so, while still thriving in the capitalist market economy. In Seoul, Ghana entered first, followed by Gabon, ga being the first syllable of the Korean han’gul syllabary [sic; see below]. At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the Chinese hosts followed traditional fourth-century classifying systems, which sorted each ideogram first by a single radical, used as its primary identifier, and then by the number of brushstrokes it contained. And the world did not come to an end, nor did China stop being the world’s second-largest economy simply because it had historically sorted and organized by systems the West no longer used. In fact, the sole result was a minor panic among Western television networks as they attempted to work out where to slot their advertising breaks in order not to miss their own country’s appearance. Not really an alphabetical existential crisis.

Korean hangul is an alphabet, not a syllabary. The syllable ga 가 consists of the first consonant ㄱ (g) and the first vowelㅏ(a) in Korean alphabetical order, in which the n of Ghana precedes the b of Gabon.

Chinese Parade of Nations order for the 2008 Olympics had little to do with radicals and ancient dictionary order. But it did rely on brushstroke counts rather than the pinyin alphabet.

Pinyin order for Chinese names of countries and regions can be found on pp. 961-971 in The Pinyin Chinese-English Dictionary, edited by  Wu Jingrong of the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute (Hong Kong: Commercial Press, 1979). The names of countries are ordered by the choice of syllables used to transcribe the sounds (and sometimes meanings) of those country names. Let’s ignore tones here.

The sequence of Albania (阿尔巴尼亚 A-er-ba-ni-ya), Ireland (爱尔兰 Ai-er-lan), and Andorra (安道尔 An-dao-er) follows pinyin alphabetical order syllable by syllable, because A precedes AI and then AN.

The same principle governs the pinyin alphabetical order of the initial syllables of Mauritania (毛里塔尼亚 Mao-li-ta-ni-ya), the United States (美国 Mei-guo ‘beautiful-country’), and Mongolia (蒙古 Meng-gu): MAO > MEI > MENG.

Similarly, Iceland (冰岛 Bing-dao ‘ice-island’) precedes Denmark (丹麦 Dan-mai): BING > DAN. And Haiti (海地 Hai-di) precedes Canada (加拿大 Jia-na-da): HAI > JIA.

The Chinese names for Denmark and Canada illustrate another wrinkle. The first Chinese to name those countries were traders in Canton, where 加 (meaning ‘add’) was pronounced /ka/, as in other early borrowings for coffee (now written 咖啡 kafei) and curry (now written 咖喱 gali), in both cases with an added mouth radical on the left to show that the characters are to be read for their sound, not meaning.

The correspondence between southern Chinese /k-/ and northern Chinese /j-/ also shows up in many old place names on maps, like Nanking vs. Nanjing. In Cantonese, there was a syllable-final /k/ on 麦 ‘wheat, barley’, so 丹麦 would sound more like /danmak/.  The final /k/ also shows up in early Sino-Japanese and Sino-Korean readings for the same character. Sino-Japanese 麦酒 bakushu ‘beer’ and Sino-Korean 맥주 (麥酒) maekju ‘beer’ both translate into ‘barley-liquor’. Japanese 麦酒 bakushu is rarely used these days, but it still appears in the official name for Kirin Brewery.

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Transition to Alphabetical Grading

From A Place for Everything, by Judith Flanders (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 226-227:

For Panizzi, and the British Museum, alphabetical order was seen as a pragmatic, modern solution—in fact it was the pragmatic, modern solution.

These questions arose in American university libraries just as the institutions themselves were moving toward a grading system that used the alphabet. Yet universities had not naturally been a home to ordering by alphabet more generally. Even in the New World, supposedly freed from old caste systems by its revolution, society continued to be viewed hierarchically: the earliest surviving lists of students at Harvard and Yale Colleges show them ranked not according to their own merits, by examination results or by their conduct, but by their families’ social status. It was not until 1886 that Yale began to list graduating students in alphabetical order.

At the same time, many colleges had used descriptive phrases to indicate pass or fail marks. In the late eighteenth century, Yale had used “Optimi,” best; “second Optimi,” second best; “Inferiores (Boni),” lower (good); and “Pejores,” worse. In the nineteenth century this was replaced by a scale of 1 to 4. Harvard, on the other hand, switched from numbers to letter grades in descending order from A to C just as it was adopting an alphabetically ordered card catalog. The University of Michigan initially simplified its system to pass or fail, later replaced with P for passed, C for “conditioned” (presumably some form of conditional passing grade), and A for absent. Mount Holyoke, in Massachusetts, founded in 1837 as the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, used A for excellent, B for good, C, fair, D, passed (“barely”), E for failed, before changing to pass grades A to E, with F becoming the new “failed.” With none of these changes does there appear to have been any discussion as to why A was almost always the best—it just seemed obvious that it was.

I don’t remember what grading system we used when my wife and I taught English in Zhongshan, China, in 1987-88, but I remember writing 努力 ‘works hard’ next to a few of the student names in the roster. The hardest workers tended to be students who didn’t have relatives in Honolulu, San Francisco, Vancouver, or Sydney who sent them allowances in hard currency that exceeded the value of the renmenbi we were paid each month. In any case, the grades we assigned didn’t matter. The graduates who got the best jobs were the ones who looked most attractive and/or had the richest parents.

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First Playing Card Catalogs

From A Place for Everything, by Judith Flanders (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 184-185:

The Abbé François Rozier (1734–1793), a botanist and friend of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was commissioned by the Académie des Sciences in Paris to produce an index of its publications. Rozier did not think he was doing anything revolutionary; in fact, had he been asked, it is likely he would have described his method as traditional, even old-fashioned, following as it did Gesner’s description of how to create a bibliography. He organized his work, which he referred to in turn as an index, a dictionary, and a concordance—“the name doesn’t matter,” he wrote—in a patchwork of unwieldy systems that demanded substantial preliminary knowledge of anyone using it. He rejected pure alphabetical order in favor of keywords, although even then he indexed the members of the Académie chronologically by the date of their election to the society, with further subcategories based on their membership rank. To find, say, Leibniz in this work, the searcher needed to know the year the philosopher had joined the Académie; that, as a foreigner, he had been given only associate membership; and that he was indexed under the French variant of his name, Godefroy-Guillaume Leibnitz.    Despite this, the material on which Rozier wrote out his old-fashioned catalog was one that looked forward—was, indeed, path-breaking: “Playing cards are best for creating these tables,” he decreed.

Rozier’s choice of medium for his unwieldy jottings was a stroke of organizational genius. Eighteenth-century playing cards were printed with the suits and values on one side, as ours are today, but the reverse was left blank …. Nor did eighteenth-century cards have the shiny high finish of modern ones. Playing cards were also easily available, and inexpensive; they were designed for constant handling, and were therefore more durable than paper; they did not stick together, as pieces of paper often do, so they were easier to flick through; and they were a standard size, making storage simpler.

As with the librarians of the Josephinian, Rozier’s expectation was that these cards would serve as an interim measure to help him order his material before the finished indexes were bound and published, and in his case this is exactly what happened. But when, two decades later, the Bastille was stormed and the French Revolution overturned the ancien régime, information concerning a defunct royal society was of little moment to a new republic. Nonetheless, Rozier’s choice of writing medium was adopted wholesale. A year after the nationalization of the clerical libraries, the government planned a nationwide survey of its new possessions, hoping to amalgamate all holdings into a single central catalog of all books in all libraries throughout France.

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Early Printed Pages in Europe

From A Place for Everything, by Judith Flanders (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 127-129:

It is easy to assume that standardization, organization, regularization—and alphabetization—followed hard on the heels of the arrival of printing, but the reality was less tidy, as reality usually is. It took some time even to arrive at what we think of as a standard page of text: black ink on white paper, a centered text in roman type, intermittently interspersed with italic or bold, broken up into paragraphs by indented spaces, surmounted by running heads and page numbers. Nor were other elements of the book—chapter headings to mark text divisions, tables of contents, title pages to announce the book title, the author, publisher, and date and place of publication—any more formalized at this date. Instead, in the fifteenth and well into the sixteenth centuries, texts were designed to resemble manuscripts, often with no title page, and with red initial letters, headings, and glosses underlined. Paragraphs or other breaks in the text were rarely used, and most frequently unknown, although paragraph marks—¶—were sometimes used as marginalia, to give an indication of the text’s structure. Indented paragraphs would not become commonplace for another half century.

The Venetian printer Aldus Manutius (1449/52–1515) was an innovator: in his Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, The Dream of Poliphilus, printed in 1499, he used the paragraph indents we would recognize; and two years later, he introduced italic typefaces. Other symbols that we take for granted appeared more gradually. In manuscripts, a diple (which resembles our mathematical symbol meaning “less than”: <) had often hitherto been used as a marginal notation to guide readers’ attention to something important in the text. In the sixteenth century, the symbol moved into the text itself, indicating those lines of text that included sententiae, or citations from the authorities. And then, around the 1570s, the diple migrated again, to the beginning of a citation, to indicate direct speech or quoted material: it had become an inverted comma, or quotation mark.

Pagination—numbering each page with consecutive Arabic numerals—came relatively swiftly, although it was not originally a matter of marking first page 1, then its reverse page, and so on to the end of the work. At first, printers used these numerals to guide themselves, not their readers. From the early days of printing (and still today), the technology of the printing press was such that eight, sixteen, or thirty-two pages were printed together on a single sheet, which was then folded to produce pages 1 to 8, 1 to 16, or 1 to 32 of a book. That folded section was, and is, called a signature (the equivalent for a manuscript was a quire, which was usually made up of between four and six folded sheets), and multiple signatures were gathered in order and bound together to produce a book. These gathers can best be seen today along the top or bottom edges of most hardback books, where the pages meet the spine. To ensure the signatures were kept in the correct order during the binding process, printers gave each signature a number, or, today, consecutive letters of the alphabet, printing them inconspicuously at the bottom of each signature’s first page. The signatures could then be dispatched to a bindery in any order, and by following the progression of the numbers or letters, the book, even without numbered pages, would still easily be bound in the correct order.

Printed books were originally bound in plain paper covers, with the expectation that their owners would have them rebound in different styles or qualities of leather according to their resources and tastes. To ensure that the order of the signatures was maintained during this second binding, printers included a “register,” or list, of the first words of each signature, placing it at the beginning of the text in the position that a table of contents later came to occupy. And not long after the establishment of printing houses, some began to do more than give each signature a numeral for internal use. In printers’ technical vocabulary, a folio is the sheet of paper consisting of two sides, or pages, the front and reverse. Once the sheets have been bound into a book, the right-hand, uneven-numbered page is called the recto, the left-hand, even-numbered page the verso. (This page, for example, is a verso.) At first, it was the folios themselves that were numbered, followed by an “r” for recto, or “v” for verso.    Whichever style was chosen, the numbers were no longer internal printers’ indicators, but were there for the convenience of the readers.

In 1450, fewer than a tenth of manuscripts used any system to indicate pagination. In 1499, a reference work to the epigrams of the Roman poet Martial, Cornu Copiae, The Horn of Plenty, by the Italian humanist Niccolò Perotti, may have been the first book to include numbering on every page, a novelty highlighted by the accompanying explanation at the head of the index: “[E]ach word that is sought can be found easily, since each half page [that is, each recto and verso] throughout the entire book is numbered with arithmetical numbers [meaning Arabic, not roman, numerals].” A century later, most printed books included page numbers as a matter of course.

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Finding Classics in Other Alphabets

From A Place for Everything, by Judith Flanders (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 81-83:

Arabic dictionaries also used nonalphabetical methods of organizing. The Mukhaṣṣaṣ, or The Categorized, by Ibn Sīda (d. 1066), was divided, as its title states, by subject or topic, beginning with human nature and continuing on to physiology, psychology, women, clothes, food, and weapons. Al-Khalīl Ibn Aḥmad (d. 791), in his Kitāb al-‘ain, The Book of [the Letter] ‘Ain, used sounds to organize his work: he listed entries in an order of his own, where each sound group was followed by subcategories based on how many consonants a word contained. …

These mainly nonalphabetical developments contrasted with the works of Hebrew scholars, who tended toward alphabetical order simultaneously with (and occasionally a little ahead of) their Christian contemporaries. At the end of the eleventh century, Nathan ben Jehiel (c. 1035–c. 1110) produced his Sefer ha’Arukh, The Set Book. Ben Jehiel, who had been born in Rome, spoke Arabic, Aramaic, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Latin, Persian, and Syriac, and he drew on his knowledge of these languages to produce an alphabetically ordered book of root words occurring in rabbinic literature. It became one of the best-known dictionaries of its type—more than fifty copies survive—as well as being one of the first Hebrew books to be printed, in Rome sometime before 1472.

Many of these works, both in Arabic and Hebrew, and the scholarship that had produced them, became accessible to scholars in Western Europe for the first time as these languages began to be more widely translated into Latin. … That so many of these works returned to the West via Arabic was significant, for earlier Arab scholars had frequently added substantially to the originals, including details of their own work, which was far in advance of much of Western thought at the time.

The Western rediscovery of the classics had two results, one somewhat abstract, one concrete. More generally, the awareness of how many great works had been entirely unknown before the lifetimes of these new readers, and of how many more had been permanently lost, produced a sense that the current generation needed to ensure that this recaptured knowledge, as well as all the works produced under its influence, were preserved for future generations. Further, it created a drive to ensure that the details contained in all these new works could be found easily—in other words, readers wanted not merely to read the books, but to refer to them: they wanted search tools.

These recently translated manuscripts also brought to the West other elements that are crucial for our story. Educated European readers now became increasingly familiar with foreign alphabets. In Italy and France in particular, Hebrew had routinely been transliterated into the roman alphabet when manuscripts were copied; in the rest of Europe, the Greek alphabet had sometimes been used, but less and less as time went on. In Europe, apart from Spain, where Arabic was in common use, Arabic too had been almost always transliterated into the roman alphabet. By contrast, some in the British Isles were familiar with Old English runes, known as futhorc, or with the Irish writing system known as Ogham. Many more would have recognized, and used in conjunction with the roman alphabet, the Old English runic letters such as thorn (Þ, þ) and wynn (Ρ, ρ). For these reasons, “foreign”-looking letters were more familiar and less unnerving in the British Isles, and so Latin and Hebrew letters were both used, as they were from the ninth century in Germany, a regular destination for highly educated monks from Ireland and Britain.

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Evolution of Early Glossaries

From A Place for Everything, by Judith Flanders (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 55-57:

In Europe, Isidore’s innovative use of alphabetical order to organize his work on vocabulary was instead proving influential in a parallel genre: glosses. Glosses had originally appeared in the manuscripts they were glossing, where they explained the meanings of difficult words in Latin or translated foreign words. In both cases, the gloss was written either above the relevant word or beside it, in the margin. Later, sometimes for clarity, sometimes to preserve a valuable manuscript, glosses began to be written out as a separate document, initially continuing to list the words in the order in which they appeared in the primary text, so tying a gloss to a single work, or even, because of the reshaping and reordering that we have seen in copied manuscripts, to one particular copy of a work. Gradually, however, the utility of a gloss that included vocabulary from more than one work became apparent, even if it meant it was no longer practicable to list the words in order of appearance.

And so experiments began with different ordering systems. One possibility was alphabetical order. Another was subject categories, particularly for glosses of technical vocabulary, grouping together words relating to hunting, for example, or words for military fortifications or for parts of the body. Other glosses relied on organizing principles that are far more foreign to us today. The Læcboc, or Medicinale anglicum, The Leech Book, or English Remedies, written in Old English around 950, was arranged, as were many medical texts of the period, with diseases and cures situated along the human body a capite ad calcem, from head to heel. In the Byzantine Empire, texts were generally organized by subject, sometimes geographically, or by name. Only the Suda, a Byzantine encyclopedic dictionary dating from the late tenth century, was an alphabetical compilation, magisterially ordering thirty-one thousand historical, biographical, and lexicographical entries into a single alphabetical order. But it was an outlier, both in Byzantium and in Western Europe too at that date.

Glosses, owing their existence to readers’ difficulties with Latin, were more common in countries where the local language had no etymological connection with Latin. Native English, or German, or Flemish readers had greater need of assistance with Latin vocabulary than did French or Italian or Spanish readers, and so it follows that some of the earliest glosses we know of, from the seventh and eighth centuries, were produced by English and Irish speakers. The Leiden Glossary was probably compiled in St. Gallen, but by someone who, judging from the English translations, probably came from what is now Kent, in England. He translated the Latin vocabulary into either Old English or Old High German, and arranged the entries, at least in part, in first-letter alphabetical order. By the eighth century one glossary, which defined nearly five thousand Latin words, ordered just under two thousand of them into fairly consistent first-letter alphabetical order. One extraordinary copy of another glossary, the Liber glossarum, The Book of Glosses, which may have been produced at a convent at Soissons and was based in part on Isidore’s Etymologies, was in almost absolute order, one of the very earliest examples.

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Early Alphabetical Mnemonics

From A Place for Everything, by Judith Flanders (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 46-47:

In Europe, … where alphabetical order was used, in many cases it was considered not as a tool of reference but as one of recall, a way of imprinting a series of items onto the memory in a culture that continued to rely heavily on oral transmission. It may be for this reason that the second-century Sentences of Sextus, 123 maxims on how to live a philosophically good life, were arranged in alphabetical order. Or it may not have been: once again, all we have are later copies, which might well have been reordered. (And, in addition, the named author, Sextus the Pythagorean, is unlikely to be the actual author of the work.) We know this type of reordering was routine. Fables by an author named Babrius, some of which are today collected under a generic authorship as Aesop’s Fables, survive in copies that were organized by the first letter of the opening word of each fable. Yet an Oxyrhynchus fragment of the same fables, dating from the second century, shows that at least one earlier version was not in this order. The purpose of the reordering may well have been to help listeners remember the stories so that they, in turn, could retell them. For memory was a recurring component of alphabetization: the Greek grammarian Athenaeus listed eighty-one species of fish in first-letter alphabetical order, “in order that what is said may be easier for you to remember.”

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