Here on the blog, we examine a lot of word histories and etymologies. But have you ever paused to wonder about the letters that make them up? One reader asked me to look into the history of the alphabet itself…which is quite a thing! Of course, I figured the place to start was actually with the word alphabet and, because it led me to it in contrast, ABC.
I’ve known for a long time that alphabet is from the first two Greek letters, alpha and beta. So the word is in fact very similar to ABC. But in my head alphabet was just a bit more sophisticated. I mean, it’s from Greek! That surely gets it bonus points, right? That was obviously the primary word or idea, and we just turned it into ABCs as a simpler or even dumbed-down version. Right?
As it turns out, ABC has been used to speak of the alphabet since the 1200s! And it was even used figuratively to mean “the rudiments of a subject” (like “the ABCs of biology”) as early as the 1300s.
Which only becomes surprising when I looked and saw that alphabet–which I thought was the more primary of the words–didn’t join the English language until the 1570s! That is A LOT later! Or, well, at least in that sense. It was actually used by the end of the 1400s to mean “learning acquired through reading.” Not a sense still in use, to be sure.
Before the Latinate and Grecian terms were used, Old English still had an alphabet though, so still had a word for it. What was it? Nothing that will look familiar. They used stæfræw, which literally means “row of letters.”
As for the letters themselves and how they were chosen and assigned…well, you’ll have to tune back in next week!
For total language geeks like me, the book Language Visible by David Sacks is a fascinating read – a history of alphabets in general, plus each individual letter of the English alphabet gets its own chapter. But I didn’t know that the term “alphabet” arrived so late!