Thursday, May 20, 2021

The alphabet and the encyclopedia

Encyclopedias haven’t always been alphabetical. The structure of a medieval encyclopedia was hierarchical, reflecting a divinely ordered universe. Begin with God, then human beings, animals, and on to inanimate things. The change to alphabetical order, Judith Flanders argues, marks a change in worldview. From A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order (New York: Basic Books, 2020):

Just as the spread of alphabetically organized dictionaries and indexes had indicated a shift from seeing words purely as meaning to seeing them as a series of letters, so too the arrival of alphabetically ordered encyclopedias indicated a shift from seeing the world as a hierarchical, ordered place, explicable and comprehensible if only a person knew enough, to seeing it as a random series of events and people and places.
As Flanders also points out, Wikipedia is an encyclopedia that makes the principle of alphabetical order moot.

Also from this book
On “the preeminence of ABC” : Meaningful letters : Pen and paper and

comments: 3

Geo-B said...

When I was young, we had an encyclopedia, The Book of Knowledge, that was not alphabetical, but arranged by subject. In the last volume, there was an alphabetical index. I believe this was published until 1964. We also had The World Book Encyclopedia, which was alphabetical, and I believe there was something like The Golden Book Encyclopedia, which you bought weekly, letter by letter, at the grocery for a dollar.

Geo-B said...

I don't know if this is relevant, but it seems like cell phones have changed our sense of alphabetical order, since they list our contacts alphabetically, but by first name instead of last. So, if you were in my cell, you would be listed under the Ms, rather than the Ls. Maybe I'm doing something wrong.

Michael Leddy said...

I don’t remember the first, which would have required childhood-me to bring two books into the bathroom. The World Book was my bathroom reading, just one volume per trip.

I wouldn’t mind being under M in someone else’s phone, but first-name order on my phone felt odd. You can change it on an iPhone: go to Settings, then Contacts. I’d guess Android has that too.