History of the Calepin

About the same time that Diderot and D’Alembert were putting together their famous L’Encyclopedie, and Samuel Johnson was compiling A Dictionary of the English Language, the Manchu Emperor in China commissioned an update of an encyclopedia of Chinese knowledge. The Siku Quanshu was compiled between 1773 and 1782, was made in 7 copies, took 3,800 scribes, had 79,000 chapters and contained 800 million words. That is more than the contemporary Encyclopedia Britannica and Oxford English Dictionary combined.

I got all of this from an article in The Nation (written by Paula Findlen), reviewing a book by Ann M. Blair,Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age. I always thought that compiling knowledge into dictionaries and encyclopedias is a Western phenomenon, and that only from the eighteenth century onward. Oh boy. It turns out that there have been many attempts in the past to put all human knowledge into one volume in one way or another. Pinakes, by Callimachus, was summary of the contents of the ancient Library of Alexandria; Pliny the Elder put together a compendium of Roman knowledge of 20,000 important things. “By the tenth century enterprising scholars in Byzantium, the Islamic world and China were furiously trying to compile and summarize everything their respective civilizations produced.”

Aided by Gutenberg’s invention, Renaissance scholars  also compiled knowledge and added the index of the book – tittle page, table of contents, copyright page, bibliography. In addition to Domenico Nani Mirabelli’s Polyanthea (1503), and Theodor Zwinger’s Theater of Human Life (1565), the Renaissance saw the birth of books that condensed knowledge (precursors to CliffsNotes), books how to read books, and tools like a book wheel designed by an Italian military engineer.

But my favorite thing from this book review is that in 1502 an Augustinian monk Ambrogio Calepino published a dictionary of Latin. By 1800, it had gone through more than 200 editions. And his name – Calepino – became a word itself, a noun: calepin is an old word for dictionary, and is still used in French to mean notebook. Somehow I think he would have liked that.


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