Word of the Month: Abecedarian

David Zapatka

Reader, friend, and fellow pickleball player Janie Blake-Zunino writes, “While reading Dancing with the Muse in Old Age by Priscilla Long, I read the word abecedarian and found it interesting.”

Abecedarian abe·ce·dar·i·an noun a person who is just learning; a novice adjective 1. arranged alphabetically 2. rudimentary; elementary

Origin and Etymology—abecedary “alphabet book, primer” (going back to Middle English abscedary, borrowed from Medieval Latin abecedarium “alphabet, primer,” derived from neuter of Late Latin abecedarius “alphabetical,” from the names of the letters a + b + c + d + Latin arius -ary

The history of abecedarian is as simple as ABC—literally. The term’s Late Latin ancestor, abecedarius (which meant “alphabetical”), was created as a combination of the letters A, B, C, and D, plus the adjective suffix -arius; you can hear the echo of that origin in the pronunciation of the English term (think “ABC-darian”). In its oldest documented English uses in the early 1600s, abecedarian was a noun meaning “one learning the rudiments of something”; it specifically referred to someone who was learning the alphabet. The adjective began appearing in English texts a century later after the noun.

First Known Use—1603 used as a noun. 1732 used as an adjective.

Abecedarian used in a sentence.

Abecedarians soon learn that martial arts have a spiritual as well as physical side.

An abecedarian approach to historical study is as rudimentary a study as you will find.

The abecedarian is an ancient poetic form guided by alphabetical order. Generally each line or stanza begins with the first letter of the alphabet and is followed by the successive letter, until the final letter is reached.

The abecedarian form was frequently used in ancient cultures for sacred compositions such as prayers, hymns, and psalms. There are numerous examples of abecedarians in the Hebrew Bible; one of the most highly regarded is Psalm 118 (or 119 by King James numbering).

A form derived from the abecedarian is the acrostic, which spells out names or words through the first letter of each line.

According to the original Catholic Encyclopedia, the Abecedarians were a 16th-century German sect of Anabaptists who affected an absolute disdain for all human knowledge, contending that God would enlighten his elect from within themselves, giving them knowledge of necessary truths by visions and ecstasies, with which human learning would interfere.

They rejected every other means of instruction and claimed that to be saved one must even be ignorant of the first letters of the alphabet; hence their name, A-B-C-darians. They also considered the study of theology as a species of idolatry and regarded learned men who did any preaching as falsifiers of God’s word. Nicholas Storch led this sect, preaching that the teaching of the Holy Spirit was all that was necessary.

What abecedarian examples have you encountered? Please submit your abecedarian experiences or any word you may like to share along with your insights and comments to [email protected].