Category Archives: publishing

Imaginary “Werewolf Cells” in 1945

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 114-116:

The Ústí massacre quickly turned into a bitter point of contention between the Czechoslovak government and the Sudetendeutsch Social Democrats in London. The Cabinet in Prague, already rattled by reports arriving from low-ranking officers who were anxious to parade their vigilance by depicting every find of discarded weapons or discovery of a German civilian in possession of a pair of binoculars as evidence of a “Werewolf cell,” immediately put two and two together and made five. Even though the army stated that the cause of the explosion had not yet been determined, the Cabinet concluded that it was undoubtedly the fruit of a “planned sabotage action.” Unverified rumors were supplied to—and uncritically published by—the national and international press as confirmed fact, including a story that a Werewolf aircraft had flown low over Ústí and might have dropped a bomb on the ammunition dump at the time of the explosion. (Six weeks later, Wenzel Jaksch’s Social Democrats mockingly inquired of Prague why nothing had been heard since then from “the powerful Werewolf conspiracy, its radio stations, its grey airplanes, its centres in Belgrade, Paris and Argentine.”) For their part, Sudeten Germans aired their suspicions that the explosion had been the Czechoslovak version of the Reichstag fire of 1933, pointing to what seemed the remarkable coincidence that the Potsdam Conference was taking place at the same time. Rumors circulated in the Sudetendeutsch camp that printed notices imposing a curfew on Ústí to quell the disturbances had begun to be posted up on walls even before the explosion took place, and that the massacre had been deliberately staged to impress on the Big Three at Potsdam what would happen on a far larger scale if they did not give final approval to the expulsions. Neither the government’s nor the Sudeten Germans’ rival conspiracy theories, however, need be taken very seriously. The truth was almost certainly, as a pair of British-born residents in Ústí who had witnessed the killings reported to Ambassador Nichols, that a tragic accident had been followed by “a spontaneous outburst by Czech hooligans” in and out of uniform.

In the immediate aftermath of the massacre, public as well as official paranoia over Werewolf activity escalated considerably, with ludicrous claims like “hundreds of Werewolves have been destroyed and disposed of every day” and “our entire border is now a combat zone, where the hidden enemy launches attacks against the Czech people” appearing regularly in the popular press. The precise reason remains unclear. It may be that in the wake of the Potsdam Conference’s call for a temporary suspension of expulsions, Czechoslovak authorities felt themselves under pressure to generate the evidence that would prove the presence of the Germans to be an ongoing threat to the country’s national security and strengthen the argument for their removal. Tomáš Staněk also points out that the Communist-dominated Ministry of Information had a vested interest in generating a steady stream of stories about Werewolves and spies seeking to undermine the “People’s Democratic State.” At all events, from early August an atmosphere reminiscent of the seventeenth-century Salem witch trials prevailed in the Czech borderlands, in which numerous Germans were tortured to persuade them to reveal the names of members of Werewolf cells, who would themselves be subjected to equally rigorous interrogation to elicit still more names. As Staněk notes, a high proportion of the “confessions” thus obtained bear an uncomfortable resemblance to those extracted using identical methods from “counterrevolutionaries” and “capitalist spies” after the Communist coup of February 1948.

The fact nonetheless remained that proven cases of opposition to forced removals were somewhat nowhere to be found. The uniform, almost eerie, meekness of the German population was recorded in report after report in both Czechoslovakia and Poland. The month before the Ústí explosion, the commander of the gendarmerie declared the area to be entirely peaceful; and although the local SNB headquarters three weeks later complained of shootings and robberies occurring on a daily basis, it placed the blame for these on Czechoslovak military and Red Army elements. Elsewhere, even after the massacre, police and army accounts spoke overwhelmingly of the “passivity and servility” of the Germans; of their evident appearance of being “frightened” and “depressed”; and of the security forces’ confidence that any truly dangerous elements among them had already either been removed from the country or were safely in custody. Newspapers likewise testified to the Germans behaving with the “servility to which the Czechoslovaks ha[d] become accustomed.”

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Missing Migration History in Europe

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 1-3:

Immediately after the Second World War, the victorious Allies carried out the largest forced population transfer—and perhaps the greatest single movement of peoples—in human history. With the assistance of the British, Soviet, and U.S. governments, millions of German-speaking civilians living in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the parts of eastern Germany assigned to Poland were driven out of their homes and deposited amid the ruins of the Reich, to fend for themselves as best they could. Millions more, who had fled the advancing Red Army in the final months of the war, were prevented from returning to their places of origin, and became lifelong exiles. Others again were forcibly removed from Yugoslavia and Romania, although the Allies had never sanctioned deportations from those countries. Altogether, the expulsion operation permanently displaced at least 12 million people, and perhaps as many as 14 million. Most of these were women and children under the age of sixteen; the smallest cohort of those affected were adult males. These expulsions were accomplished with and accompanied by great violence. Tens and possibly hundreds of thousands lost their lives through ill-treatment, starvation, and disease while detained in camps before their departure—often, like Auschwitz I, the same concentration camps used by the Germans during the Second World War. Many more perished on expulsion trains, locked in freight wagons without food, water, or heating during journeys to Germany that sometimes took weeks; or died by the roadside while being driven on foot to the borders. The death rate continued to mount in Germany itself, as homeless expellees succumbed to hypothermia, malnutrition, and other effects of their ordeal. Calculating the scale of the mortality remains a source of great controversy today, but estimates of 500,000 deaths at the lower end of the spectrum, and as many as 1.5 million at the higher, are consistent with the evidence as it exists at present. Much more research will have to be carried out before this range can be narrowed to a figure that can be cited with reasonable confidence.

On the most optimistic interpretation, nonetheless, the expulsions were an immense manmade catastrophe, on a scale to put the suffering that occurred as a result of the “ethnic cleansings” in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s in the shade. They took place without any attempt at concealment, under the eyes of tens of thousands of journalists, diplomats, relief workers, and other observers with access to modern communications, in the middle of the world’s most crowded continent. Yet they aroused little attention at the time. Today, outside Germany, they are almost completely unknown. In most English-language histories of the period they are at best a footnote, and usually not even that. The most recent (2009) edition of Mary Fulbrook’s excellent History of Germany 1918–2008 disposes of the episode in a single uninformative paragraph; the antics of the tiny ultraleftist Red Army Faction in the 1970s and 1980s, in comparison, rate four. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Germany is typical in not according the expulsions even a single mention. What is true of German history textbooks is also the case with those dealing with the history of Europe as a whole, and even of the central European states most directly concerned. Joseph Rothschild and Nancy Wingfield’s fine survey of the region in the postwar era, Return to Diversity—by far the most accessible and reliable one-volume treatment of the subject—takes a cumulative total of less than a page to explain the means by which Poland and Czechoslovakia, until 1939 among the most heterogeneous and multicultural countries in Europe, had just ten years later become ethnic monoliths. It is, then, entirely understandable why so many of my splendid and learned colleagues on the Colgate faculty should have expressed their confusion to me after reading in the newspapers in October 2009 that the president of the Czech Republic, Václav Klaus, had demanded that the other members of the European Union legally indemnify his country against compensation claims by ethnic German expellees, as the price of his country’s ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. None had been aware that anything had occurred after the war in respect of which the Czech Republic might require to be indemnified.

It would be incorrect, however, to attribute this pervasive ignorance of the expulsions, their context, and their consequences to any conspiracy of silence. What has occurred in the postwar era is something less calculated in nature, but more insidious in effect: the phenomenon of a historical episode of great significance that is hidden in plain sight. Certainly information, albeit of highly variable quality, on the expulsions is available—for those who possess the requisite language competence and are prepared to go looking for it. A 1989 bibliography lists almost five thousand works dealing with them to some degree in the German language alone. Even today, some sixty-five years later, living expellees are not hard to find; it has been calculated that a quarter of the current German population are expellees or their immediate descendants. What is denied, then, is not the fact of the expulsions but their significance. Relegated in textbooks to a single passing mention in a vaguely phrased sentence referring to the “chaos” existing in Germany in the immediate postwar era, or simply passed over in silence, the impression is effectively conveyed that they occupy a less important place in modern European history than the cultural meanings of football hooliganism or the relevance of the Trabant automobile as a metaphor for East German society.

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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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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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Early Chinese Dictionary Orders

From A Place for Everything, by Judith Flanders (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 45-46:

On the other side of the globe and in an entirely nonalphabetic writing system, in China during the Han dynasty (206 BCE–221 CE), organizing principles were well in advance of the West’s as far as government administration was concerned. Emperor Cheng (51–7 BCE) commissioned an inventory and catalog of all documents in the imperial archives. Three imperial libraries were built and catalogs were drawn up, organized into subject categories: general summaries, the Confucian classics, philosophy, poetry, warfare, divination, and medicine. Dictionaries were also compiled. The Cangjie Primer (c. 220 BCE) was intended as a textbook to teach children their Chinese characters. It has not survived, but was said to have categorized the characters by meaning and by their structure. So “madness,” “blemish,” “sore head,” and “burn” were grouped together, all being related to the character for “illness.”

This was followed by the Erya (c. 200 BCE), which has been called the first Chinese dictionary. It too was divided topically, by subject, with linked words grouped together within each category, although the connections are not necessarily ones we recognize today: roads and bridges were considered to originate from the court of the emperor, and thus they appear under the heading “Interpreting the Court”; warfare too was the province of the ruler, who was divinely ordained, and thus it fell into the section dedicated to “Interpreting the Heavens.” In around 100 CE the Shuō wén jiě zì dictionary, containing some 9,500 characters, originated a sorting system based not on meaning but on the manner in which a character was written. Each was defined as either a single unit or a compound character, and then categorized by 540 elements, called radicals, which might be semantic elements of the character or might be graphic ones—the direction of a stroke, for example. Each character was then listed under a single radical, which came to define it for lexicographical purposes.

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Neutrality of Alphabetical Order

From A Place for Everything, by Judith Flanders (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 18-19:

This alphabetic predominance makes it hard for us to remember today that the phrase “alphabetical order” has two parts, and that they might be of equal weight: “alphabetical,” yes, but also “order.” And that all order, and ordering, is not of necessity alphabetical—indeed, for centuries the idea of ordering by random chance, by the letters of the alphabet, was considered less useful than a multitude of other sorting methods—geographical, chronological, hierarchical, categorical. Sometimes things had, and continue to have, no visible organizing method, their innate order being so essential that it is simply remembered. For a medieval clergyman, what would have been the point of putting the books of the Bible in alphabetical order? To him, it was obvious that Genesis comes before Exodus, just as, to us, it is obvious that Monday comes before Tuesday, September before October. In fact, it is surprisingly difficult to put the days of the week or the months of the year into alphabetical order, because the days and months have a “natural” order, one that is not alphabetical.

Other types of categorizing and sorting that were natural to generations past today seem as peculiar to us as April heading a list of the months of the year because it begins with A. Yet in a world more stratified than our own, sorting things hierarchically was once a natural impulse. The Domesday Book, that summary of land occupancy in England and parts of Wales produced for William the Conqueror in 1086, assessed the values of 13,418 places, organizing them first by status, then by geography, then by status again, and finally by wealth. The king came first, followed—broken down by region—by the great clergy, the powerful barons, and, lastly, each district’s most humble tenants.

But of course, for the information in the Domesday Book to be accessible to later readers, they had to know the regions of England and Wales, and the orders of hierarchy—who outranked whom. For, in all the millennia of reading and writing, only one major sorting system has evolved that requires no previous knowledge from the searcher: alphabetical order. To use it, the only thing searchers need to know is a list of approximately (depending on the language) two dozen characters, in an established order. They do not need to know on what continent a city is located to find it in an atlas, nor if a bishop outranks a cardinal to find him in a list of participants at a clerical summit. Neither do they need to know whether the English Civil War preceded or postdated the American Civil War to locate it in an alphabetical list of “Wars Through History”; nor, indeed, do they need to know whether a pumpkin is considered a vegetable or a fruit to search for it in a seed catalog.

Alphabetical order is in this way entirely neutral.

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