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 Latin for "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 antiquity by 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.

Historical examples


In the 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 Bible are 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 Psalms are known by their incipits, most noticeably Psalm 51 (Septuagint numbering: Psalm 50), which is known in Western Christianity by its Latin incipit "miserere".


Catholic Church proclamations such as Papal bulls and encyclical letters issued by the Holy See (either by the Pope himself 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 sonnet 55 "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.

Many 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.

ee also

*Epigraph (literature)


*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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  • Incipit — de Jacques le Fataliste. Aujourd hui, le mot incipit (du latin incipio, is, ere : « commencer ») désigne les premiers mots d un texte. Selon une tradition hébraïque reprise dans le christianisme, l incipit donne son titre au… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Íncipit — al evangelio de Juan. Segunda mitad siglo IX. Un íncipit (del latín incipit, ‘empieza’) son las primeras palabras de un texto. Siguiendo una tradición hebrea que se retoma en el cristianismo, el íncipit da su título al documento. La palabra… …   Wikipedia Español

  • incipit — [ ɛ̃sipit ] n. m. • 1840; mot lat., 3e pers. sing. indic. prés. de incipere « commencer » ♦ Didact. Premiers mots d un manuscrit, d un livre. Catalogue citant les incipit (ou les incipits) des ouvrages répertoriés. ● incipit nom masculin… …   Encyclopédie Universelle

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  • incipit — opening word of a Latin book or manuscript, Latin, lit. (here) begins, third person singular present indicative of incipere (see INCIPIENT (Cf. incipient)) …   Etymology dictionary

  • incipit — ìncipit m DEFINICIJA pov. početni dio teksta srednjovjekovnog rukopisa, gregorijanskog korala i inkunabula, sadrži naziv djela i ime pisca; intonacija ETIMOLOGIJA lat.: (ovdje) počinje ← incipere: počinjati …   Hrvatski jezični portal

  • incipit — [in′si pit΄] vi. [L] (here) begins: a word sometimes placed at the beginning of a medieval manuscript n. the beginning of something; specif., the first words of a medieval manuscript …   English World dictionary

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