The incipit of a text, such as a
poem, song, or book, is its first few words or opening line. In music it can also refer to the opening notes of a composition. Before the development of titles, texts were often referred to by their incipits. "Incipit" comes from the Latinfor "it begins". In the medieval period, incipits were often written in a different script or color from the rest of the work of which they were a part. Though "incipit" is Latin, the practice of the incipit predates classical antiquityby several millennia, and can be found in various parts of the world. Although not always called by the name of "incipit" today, they remain popular and commonplace.
clay tablet archives of Sumer, catalogs of documents were kept by making special catalog tablets containing the incipits of a given collection of tablets.
The catalog was meant to be used by the very limited number of official
scribes who had access to the archives, and the width of a clay tablet and its resolution did not permit long entries. This is a Sumerian example from Lerner::Honored and noble warrior:Where are the sheep:Where are the wild oxen:And with you I did not:In our city:In former days
Many books in the
Hebrew Bibleare named in Hebrew using incipits. For instance, the first book is called "Bereshit" ("In the beginning ...") and Lamentations, which begins "How lonely sits the city ..." is called "Eykhah" ("How"). (In the first case, the incipit has passed into English, " Genesis" being derived from the Greek translation of "Bereshit". This is not the case, however, with other books; the second, for example, is called " Lamentations" in English.)
All the names of parshiot are incipits, the title coming from a word in its first two verses.
Some of the
Psalmsare known by their incipits, most noticeably Psalm 51(Septuagint numbering: Psalm 50), which is known in Western Christianityby its Latin incipit " miserere".
Catholic Church proclamations such as
Papal bullsand encyclicalletters issued by the Holy See(either by the Popehimself or by Congregations of the Roman Curia), or by an Ecumenical Council, are generally referred to by their opening words — by their incipit, in short.
Some recent examples have been printed with a description placed above the text, laying out the document's subject matter, which functions more or less as a title. Yet even in those cases it remains common to ignore this heading and refer to the document by its incipit. Pope Benedict XVI's first encyclical, for example, is headed by the description "De Christiano Amore" (Latin: "On Christian Love"); but it is nonetheless generally known by the first words of its text proper: "Deus Caritas est" ("God is love").
Modern uses of incipits
The idea of choosing a few words or a phrase or two, which would be placed on the spine of a book and its cover, developed slowly with the birth of
printing, and the idea of a title page with a short title and subtitle came centuries later, replacing earlier, more verbose titles.
The modern use of standardized titles, combined with the
International Standard Bibliographic Description(ISBD), have made the incipit obsolete as a tool for organizing information in libraries.
However, incipits are still used to refer to untitled poems, songs, and prayers, such as
Gregorian chants, operatic arias, many prayers and hymns, and numerous poems, including those of Emily Dickinson. That such a use is an incipit and not a title is most obvious when the line breaks off in the middle of a grammatical unit (e.g. Shakespeare's sonnet55 "Not marble, nor the gilded monuments").
Incipits are also used in catalogs of music, particularly catalogs of symphonies. In cataloging symphonies, the incipit is the first four bars of the first violin part of the score.
word processors, when a user tries to save a document for the first time, propose its first few words as a default file name, assuming that these may correspond to the intended title of the document. In effect, then, users who accept these suggestions catalogue their files by incipit.
And many 'web search engines', such as Google, present, after the title of each page that matches the words searched for the user, a kind of incipit of these pages.
*Barreau, Deborah K.; Nardi, Bonnie. "Finding and Reminding: File Organization From the desktop". SigChi Bulletin. July 1995. Vol. 27. No. 3. pp. 39-43
* Casson, Lionel. "Libraries in the Ancient World". New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-300-08809-4. ISBN 0-300-09721-2.
* Lerner, Frederick Andrew. "The Story of Libraries: From the Invention of Writing to the Computer Age". New York: Continuum, 1998. ISBN 0-8264-1114-2. ISBN 0-8264-1325-0.
*Malone, Thomas W. "How do people organize their desks? Implications for the design of Office Information Systems". ACM Transactions on Office Information Systems. Vol. 1. No. 1 January 1983. pp 99-112.
*Nardi, Bonnie; Barreau, Deborah K. "Finding and Reminding Revisited: Appropriate metaphors for File Organization at the Desktop". SigChi Bulletin. January 1997. Vol. 29. No. 1.
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