Book review: A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order, by Judith Flanders

November 10, 2020

Alphabetical order is all around us, to various degrees of prominence. Yet it is less straightforward than is often supposed: my efforts to catalogue my books and DVDs, not to mention the bibliographies that I proofread, point to myriad complications. Alphabetical order is not the uniform ideal it may superficially seem to be.

It also often shares space with other kinds of order, such as genre, or personal cosmology. A traditional phone book does not quite go from A to Z – businesses are listed separately. Many of them, moreover, game the system, bypassing its seeming neutrality. (Nicola Barker’s novel Darkmans – itself the size of a phone book – has a character enraged by a competitor whose company name pips him in the listings.)

Still, alphabetical order is far more neutral than other systems. Historically, power played an outsized role in the arrangement of listable items; for centuries that power reflected prevailing religious norms. In early medieval Christendom, works often strove to reflect the hierarchy of God’s creation, and so alphabetical order ‘looked like resistance, even rebellion […] or possibly ignorance’.

This comment comes from a new book, A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order by Judith Flanders. It tells the story of ‘how we moved from the arrival of the alphabet around 2000 BCE to the slow unfolding of alphabetical order as a sorting tool some three thousand years later’. It is a welcome exploration of an area that has received relatively little attention compared to the alphabet itself:

Ordering and sorting, and then returning to the material sorted via reference tools, have become so integral to the Western mindset that their significance is both almost incalculable and curiously invisible.

Read the rest of this entry »


Centring around phonetic alphabets

March 11, 2013

Over at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I’ve been writing about idioms and alphabets, specifically centre around and “SaypU”.

In Centring around a usage disagreement, I discuss the phrase centre around and the regular complaints that it’s somehow wrong or illogical:

Centre around has been in use for about a century and a half, and no one seemed to mind it until the 1920s. Then someone cried foul, or rather illogic, and since then many have found fault with its apparent contravention of mathematical propriety. Nowadays it’s a regular source of annoyance, some of it extreme: one reader said seeing it in an article sent her “screaming to Strunk and White”. I worry for her blood pressure.

Critics object that a centre is “technically a single point” (Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage) and you can’t physically centre around something. But if centres were single points, city centres would be impossibly crowded.

The problem lies with the tension between mathematical logic and idiomatic usage. (You can guess which side I’m on.) I’m also interested in what motivates people to say centre around, and I touch on that later in the post.

Do you use the phrase, avoid it, like it, hate it, or have no strong feelings either way?

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Next: Can shared alphabets foster peace? follows up on a recent BBC report about a new phonetic alphabet, SaypU, whose creator hopes it can make the world more peaceful and harmonious. Historically this is nothing unusual:

Moral and political aspirations have motivated inventors of languages and other communication systems for centuries. Esperanto is perhaps the most famous. Its creator, Ludwik Zamenhof, was an idealist who felt the “heavy sadness” of linguistic diversity and believed it was “the only, or at least the primary force which divides the human family into enemy parts”. So he created Esperanto to foster communication and understanding between people of different languages.

But would speaking the same language really make people more inclined to get on? . . . [T]here’s no reason to assume greater communicative overlap would engender significantly more kindness and mutual consideration among people.

The post looks briefly at whether the project measures up in practical terms, and throws the IPA and Douglas Adams into the mix.

For older articles, see my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.


Scott Kim’s symmetrical alphabet

October 18, 2012

As a child I used to draw things like animals and people using only the letters in their names. I would stretch and contort each word’s curves to evoke the shape of what it referred to. It’s a game I’m sure many have played. And I liked drawing faces that were also faces when you turned the page upside-down – like this matchbox set, but simpler.

So you can imagine the appeal ambigrams held. There’s an example above, or see Wikipedia for a basic introduction. I think I first encountered these shapes, also known as inversions, in Douglas Hofstadter’s books. They involve an artfully contrived symmetry whereby a word can be rotated, reflected or otherwise shifted but remains readable.

I recently came across the beautiful ambigram below: a perfectly symmetrical mirror alphabet from puzzle-designing wizard Scott Kim.

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It’s immediately recognisable as the modern Latin alphabet, but the ingenious warping and blending required to make it symmetrical gives it a striking, quite exotic appearance. Ambigrams are “so purely visual,” Kim has said: “You can explain them in words, but it’s like describing a dance.”

The symmetrical alphabet is available as a poster, and you can see more of the artist’s ambigrams, many of them animated, on his page of inversions. The image is copyright © Scott Kim, scottkim.com, and is used with permission.