Following the pattern apparent in alfabeto/alphabet, a word based on the names of the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, Late Latin looked to its own alphabet, took twice as many letters at the beginning, and created the adjective abecedarius to mean ‘belonging to the alphabet’ and ‘alphabetical.’ Spanish borrowed that as the noun abecedario, whose basic meaning is ‘alphabet.’ (Compare once again the English nursery rhyme that includes the line “Now I know my abc’s,” where abc’s is a synecdoche for ‘the whole alphabet.’) Spanish abecedario has the extended senses ‘alphabetical order’ and ‘a book that teaches the alphabet.’ In addition, Spanish uses the shorter abecé, made up of the names of the first three letters in its alphabet.

English has also turned to Late Latin abecedarius, which it renders abecedary. The Century Dictionary defined it as ‘an a-b-c book; a primer’ and ‘a first principle or element; rudiment.’ By a happy coincidence, last night on PBS I watched “The Bible’s Buried Secrets,” by my talented cousin Gary Glassman. Since I first saw the show in 2008, I’d forgotten that the word abecadary appeared in it. As used in that documentary, abecedary had the sense that Wikipedia gives it: ‘An abecedarium (or abecedary) is an inscription consisting of the letters of an alphabet, almost always listed in order.’ The entry went on to note that “typically, abecedaria (or abecedaries) are practice exercises.”

In addition to abecedary, English has the noun abecedarian, which means at its most literal ‘a person who is studying the alphabet as a prelude to learning how to read.’ Based on that, abecedarian has the extended sense ‘a person who is learning the basics of any subject.’ As an adjective, abecedarian has had several meanings: ‘involving the alphabet; arranged alphabetically; elementary, basic, rudimentary.’

Because learning is often a consequence of teaching—compare non-standard English “That’ll learn ya”—English abecedarian has also meant ‘a person who teaches the alphabet.’ In looking for usage examples, I learned that in the late 1700s there had been an Abecedarian Society in Dublin, Ireland. Here’s a mention of it from the 1790 volume of The Critical Review (and remember that what looks like an f was the lower-case form of the letter s that was used when it was not the last letter in a word):

The more-than-two-centuries-old observation that teachers’ stipends are often much inferior to their merits reminds us of the French adage “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” or “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”

© 2011 the former schoolmaster Steven Schwartzman


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  1. Trackback: Bring Back the ABCs, Part Two | The Gad About Town

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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