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Friday, September 23, 2011

On the index


As I promised in my post about the plural of "index", here is the story of the word "index".

There were a lot of words competing for the honour of designating alphabetical lists in the Renaissance. I suspect that this is because indexes as a concept only really came into being at the Renaissance (before then “table” was used for such lists). In fact, apparently you couldn't index before the Renaissance, because before then we had no alphabet! 

Well, really we did, but the alphabet wasn't called that till the early 1500s (1513 being the OED's first quotation). The alphabet had been called a "cross row" or "Christ cross row" (more on this in another post) for a while, because a cross sign began it in schoolbooks. 

One famous lexicographer, Cotgrave, even sniffily dismissed the word "alphabet" as vulgar in 1611: "Touching the French abece, for alphabet I will not call it, according to the vulgar error, that word being peculiar only to the Greek tongue." (Yet more proof that lexicographers have less power than you might think, and that usage objections have a way of fading away with time.) 

But back to indexes. Some down-to -earth person wanted to call them “finders” but he was doomed to failure, because the Renaissance was a time of borrowing from Greek and Latin, especially for highbrow intellectual pursuits.The Greek-derived word in the race was "elench" from elenchos (cross-examination). There were three candidates from Latin:

  1. concordance, from con (together) and corde (heart)
  2. repertory, from reperire (to find)
  3. index,  from index (the forefinger, or “pointer” , from indicare to point out). 
In the Middle Ages the index finger had beeen called the “teacher”, because "teach" originally meant "point out", but once again the word of Anglo-Saxon origin had to lose out to a Latinate one. It could have been instead the delightful, and equally Latin, “insignitor”, another word that was popular for the index finger in the 1500s. But for fingers and finders, "index" was the ultimate winner.

For what magpies have to do with indexing, see this post

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  1. AHA!

    So then that's where the French word for "teach" comes from ? From the index finger, from "pointing out" ?

    Anyway, the root "sign" also seems (in my opinion) discernible here. And it may be that "pointing out" is also "making a sign (gesture)"


  2. "Enseigner" does indeed come from "insignare".

  3. Hello,

    The Romanian verb for "to teach" is "a preda" - "to turn over" (to someone else; knowledge, I suppose), also "to surrender" - to mention it just in passing.

    They say it's Slavic ... Strange. The Romanian "a da" is "to give", though. Maybe this is one of those ancient terms which transcend group language divisions.

  4. I often correct the plural from "indices" to the COD (and Webster's) preference, "indexes," which I prefer. The former just doesn't relate well to the singular for me, although it's appropriate in statistical and scientific contexts but not usually in magazine pieces for The Walrus and Azure, my core clients.

    Thanks for your great work, Katherine. My second edition of the COD is thoroughly battered, mostly from travelling with me as I live and work in exotic climes, but also from hard and frequent use. I brandish it to incoming interns at The Walrus as an example of how well used their own dictionaries should look. These days, groups of interns and editors often share just one copy, and most of my corporate and government clients rely on inferior online or MSWord dictionaries—ugh!

    When I started out as a copy editor, 30 years ago, each staffer had a library of reference works on his or her desk. The editor-in-chief had a habit of walking by and opening the books. If the spines cracked, indicating disuse, the offender was summarily hauled on the carpet in the editor's office, with the door open for all to hear. Ah, the good old days of editorial rigour.

    Kind regards,
    P@MELA Capraru

  5. Dear Pamela, Thanks for your comment (and your well-thumbed dictionary). We lexicographers used to dream about a publicity campaign for our dictionaries the slogan of which would be "Try Opening It!".

  6. One of my high school English teachers told the class one day that Oxford dons (century not specified) used their right index finger while lecturing in a particular way. Raising it meant "Pay close attention." Pointing downward at an angle meant "Take careful note." I have no idea whether this is factual or apocryphal. Perhaps someone here knows the answer. (I've been wondering for a bit over half a century but never thought to ask before.)


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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.