Now you know your abecedary…next time sing along!

Here’s a word that I’ve come across several times in the past few years that I’m willing to bet few readers know: abecedary.

It’s pronounced “ay-bee-see-duh-ree,” as if you’re reading out the first four letters of the alphabet, “a-b-c-d.” (Forgive my lack of adherence to any phonetic transcription standard. Here’s how Oxford shows the pronunciation: /ˌeɪbiˈsidəri/.)

I’ve run into abecedary (sometimes abecediary) in historical and archaeological contexts. There, the word is used to describe items used for listing out or practicing an ancient alphabet. It’s a primer (or primmer) of sorts. Sometimes there isn’t much more than this (that’s an image of a 10th century BCE proto-Hebrew alphabet on an abecedary found at Tel-Zayit). To be thorough, the word is also sometimes used to refer to a simple list or catalog of the characters in a given writing system, regardless of age (although that seems to cheapen and undercut the specific archaeological meaning).

The contexts in which I’ve seen and heard abecedary led me to believe it was a specialized term of relatively recent coinage, probably 19th or 20th century. I was correct in the first assumption, but absolutely wrong in the second.

Ugarit abecedary. Older than the OED.

It turns out that abecedary is actually quite an old word. OED shows a first example (with variant spelling) from about 1475, but notes that it probably goes back to the 8th century (even farther if you count the Latin roots). It doesn’t seem to ever have been common: not only does OED note it as “Now chiefly hist.” (typically used only in historical contexts), but about one-third of the usage examples they offer have the authors comparing abecedaries to primers, suggesting that their readers needed that extra flag to understand the term.

It’s a cool word. After all, how often do you come across a term where the pronunciation is little more than phonetically saying the first few letters of an alphabet? It’s true that “alphabet” is actually such a word as well…but not in our language, since we abandoned alpha and beta as labels for our letters many centuries ago.

Are you going to have much cause to use abecedary in your speech or writing? Probably not…although it would be a fun thing if kindergarten teachers began to tell their students to make fresh abecedaries each day (my young son’s penmanship could benefit from that kind of practice) . But since every little bit of knowledge you gain increases your ability to understand the world and make more connections between seemingly unrelated corners, it can only help you to know it. You never know what beginning with a simple abecedary might eventually lead to.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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