Books

P is for Plum Pudding

Jonathon Green reviews A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order by Judith Flanders

Judith flanders is one of our outstanding popular historians. She has written, among other topics, on the Victorian house, on the concept of “home”, on Christmas, on Dickens’s London and on the “invention of murder”. One might suggest that all these are of a piece — in one form or another the intellectual and practical creations that  emerged in the nineteenth century and in turn have established that century in popular imagination — and her work has illumined every one.

A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order by Judith Flanders Picador £16.99

Her new book, A Place for Everything (which, with its traditional pendant “and everything in its place”, is variously attributed to Mrs Beeton, Samuel Smiles and Benjamin Franklin) abjures that piece and takes on a far wider topic, though that too required a good deal of intellectual as well as practical creativity. (One might also suggest in her application of a pious Victorian homily, Ms Flanders has not forgotten her century of choice.)

It is, to return to her own explication of the makings of Christmas, one of the richer plum puddings. The research, as is always the case with Ms Flanders’s non-fiction (she is also the author of four books of crime fiction), is wide-ranging and revelatory. If one might offer a quibble, the subtitle (perhaps appended by a sales-hungry publisher) is somewhat misleading: the A-Z is but a part of the book and by no means the lead character.

Those who search for an adult variation on Kipling’s “How the Alphabet Was Made” in his children’s favourite Just So Stories , must seek elsewhere. Nor does the alphabet really survive unscathed to the book’s end: it certainly can’t claim the triumphant happy ending offered most stars.

If there is a lead, then it is played by an ensemble troupe: the ever-broadening range of human knowledge and the need, ever-broadening too, for putting it in some kind order. If there is a theme to the book, it is that we just keep getting to know more stuff, we keep wanting to maintain some records thereof, and we need, with increasing urgency, to find a way of putting it in order. At the same time there are always more of us, and literacy expands as does population. Not only do we need our booming information in order, we also wish to render it easily and speedily accessible. If alphabetical order is as Ms Flanders suggests, echoing Churchill on democracy, the least bad of all attempted alternatives, then it has not reached that status without some serious, and by no means invariably abandoned competition.

Technology has always run hand-in-hand with ever-more necessary codification, and humanity has come up with a succession of new mousetraps, whether they be florilegia, garlands of intellectual “blossoms” cut from a variety of sources and as such the original anthologies, commonplace books, again a selection of what has been assessed as important, concordances, dealing with every word in a given text, the index, first laboriously created by the individual reader for their own use, then appended as a necessary given to an increasing number of books, and such three-dimensional adjuncts as the invention of paper, the threading of documents on a spike for later filing, the lever-arch, hanging and box files, the pigeonhole, the card catalogue, the roll-top desk and the Dewey classification system.

Then there is the typewriter, which may encompass the alphabet so as more efficiently to present it, but in no way leaves it unmodified. Writ even larger are the alphabet, originally sorting on no more than the initial letter, then moving onwards to use the whole of each word, the invention of moveable type (invented in Korea around 1230, for Western users by Gutenberg in 1450), and for the last few decades, the world of digital storage and communication.

It is this last, of course, that presents the greatest threat to the alphabet. Other systems had coexisted: they either ignored A-Z order, preferring chronology or hierarchy as the basis of their ordering, or took on board some degree of A-Z. Though what makes up “alphabetical order” was always debatable.  Was it letter-by–letter in every word, or “nested”, whereby — as in the modern OED — the compounds, phrases and derivatives of a given head word are grouped with that word, rather than on an absolute A-Z list. How did one deal with abbreviations: in strict order, or bunched after the initial letter, so that, say, D-Day, d.i.y., the DTs and so on all come before dab? It was not so long ago that lexicographers made no difference between I and J and U and V.

The dictionary, like the rest of the world, was no automatic advocate of A-Z. The earliest compilers of these and other collections of data opted for the subject-based, and sometimes hierarchical list, i.e. God, angels, apostles, fathers of the Christian church . . . down, at last, to powerless, landless churls and peasants.

The idea of omniscience, of  knowing everything that was to be known, might have existed for a while — the early dictionary was often 50  per cent an encyclopedia before the duo went their separate ways — but it could not last. For the dictionary as with any depository of knowledge, the expansion of what was known simply burst through the constraints of listing. The alphabet, with its rejection of social/religious order may have seemed a form of lèse-majesté, even blasphemy, but it offered a way of chaining the insatiable beast.

In all cases by the nineteenth and on through most of the twentieth century, the alphabet — at least in such countries whose languages used the concept (others did not, for instance Chinese ideograms or ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics) — was seen as a good and necessary thing. The computer and its vast databases have essentially bidden farewell to such co-existence. The truth is, at least as consumers of knowledge and searchers after information, we no longer need A-Z. Never more so than in lexicography, my own employment.

Reference books were among digitisation’s earliest targets. These massive tomes, often multi-volumed, host to multiple typefaces (the 10-language Calepino of c.1585 defies anyone who hasn’t a grasp of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Gothic and several more) were long in their composition and physically hard to handle

Yet by the very nature of the ever-evolving language they chased, they were impossible to complete. Nevertheless, they  were among the great products of the nineteenth century’s scholars, epitomising in their bulk and variety the era’s devotion to imposing order.

If there is a “natural” home for alphabetisation,  it is surely in their tight-printed columns. Yet the accelerating online world makes A-Z order irrelevant. Volume too has become irrelevant: in digital terms the print lexicon’s huge letters (English has achieved 25 per cent of its headwords by the end of D, and S alone is good for much of what remains) bulk no larger than the tiny ones.

In the databases that underpin the dictionary websites, the alphabet remains honoured — one has to have some degree of underlying order to all those words and phrases and the alphabetical system is a good way of assessing the state of one’s researches. At this level what’s not broke doesn’t require fixing. But for practical use, who any longer cares that one word is listed next to another? It is the homeowner for whom one knocks, not the neighbours.

A Place for Everything, despite what in reference terms is a somewhat meagre 263 pages (plus another 80 to include a timeline, notes, bibliography and index), is an exemplar of the form on which it focuses. It covers a vast quantity of material and were it not for the fact that in any collection of knowledge there is always something new in the offing, it would be churlish to suggest any major omissions. If there is a fault it is perhaps that the pudding sports so many plums that one might at times risk indigestion. But if so, they are far outweighed by a mint of rewarding sixpences.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover