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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The incipit of a text, such as a poem, song, or book, is its first few words of the 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


The first page of the Vilna Edition of the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot, folio 2a., with the word "Me-ematai" in the box at the top.

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").

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. They in turn lend these incipits to some Sundays of the liturgical year: e.g. the fourth Sunday of Advent is named Sunday Rorate after the introitus psalm of the day, Rorate Coeli.

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 (Tractate) Berachot ("Benedictions") is called Me-ematai ("From when"). This word is printed at the head of every subsequent page within that chapter of the Mesekhet.

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. (See the Hebrew wikipedia for an example of how a "dibur ha-mathil" is cited.)

Sometimes an entire monograph is known by it "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.

Papal Bulls

Traditionally, papal bulls, documents issued under the authority of the Pope, are referenced by their Latin incipit. (See List of papal bulls.)

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. They typically feature the first few bars of a piece, with the most prominent musical material written on a single staff.

A 2008 novel with a title nearly seven thousand words long uses the incipit of the title (Marienbad My Love) as a name.

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.

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).

See also


  • 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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