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Incipit is a Latin word meaning "it begins". The incipit of a text, such as a poem, song, or book, is the first few words of its opening line. In music, it can also refer to the opening notes of a musical composition. Before the development of titles, texts were often referred to by their incipits, as with for example Agnus Dei. 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, and "incipit pages" might be heavily decorated with illumination. Though the word 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, the practice of referring to texts by their initial words remains commonplace.
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 (Genesis) is called Bereshit ("In the beginning ...") and Lamentations, which begins "How lonely sits the city ..." is called Eykha ("How").
All the names of parashot are incipits, the title coming from a word in its first two verses.
In the Talmud, the chapters of the Gemara are titled in print and known by their first words, e.g. the first chapter of Mesekhet Berachot ("Benedictions") is called Me-ematai ("From when"). This word is printed at the head of every subsequent page within that chapter of the tractate.
In rabbinic usage, the incipit is known as the "dibur ha-mathil" (דיבור המתחיל), or "beginning phrase", and refers to a section heading in a published monograph or commentary that typically, but not always, quotes or paraphrases a classic biblical or rabbinic passage to be commented upon or discussed.
Sometimes an entire monograph is known by its "dibur hamathil". The published mystical and exegetical discourses of the Chabad-Lubavitch rebbes (called "ma'amarim"), derive their titles almost exclusively from the "dibur ha-mathil" of the individual work's first chapter.
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").
Latin legal concepts are often designated by the first few words, for example, habeas corpus for habeas corpus ad subjiciendum ("may you have the person to be subjected [to examination]").
Many word processors propose the first few words of a document as a default file name, assuming that the incipit may correspond to the intended title of the document.
Most typewriter and computer keyboards in the western world are based on a layout commonly referred to as QWERTY because of the order of the first six letter keys.
Musical incipits are printed in standard music notation. They typically feature the first few bars of a piece, with the most prominent musical material written on a single staff. Incipits are especially useful in music because they can call to mind the reader's own musical memory of the work where a printed title would fail to do so. Musical incipits appear both in catalogs of music and in the tables of contents of volumes that include multiple works.
In choral music, a sacred or secular piece, dating to before the turn of the 20th century, is usually titled with the incipit text of its lyrics. Take, for instance, the proper of the Catholic mass (which is traditionally sung rather than spoken) or the Latin transcriptions of the biblical psalms used as prayers during services; these are always titled with the first word or words in the text. A more modern form of religious music, the Protestant hymns of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are traditionally titled with an incipit.
In computer science
In computer science, long strings of characters may be referred to by their incipits, particularly encryption keys or product keys. Notable examples include FCKGW (used by Windows XP) and 09 F9 (used by Advanced Access Content System).
- 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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