bibliography

This word once signified the act of writing books; now it tells you you’ve gotten to the end of a written work. And if you’re the writer, the odds are good that by the time you’re to the end of the bibliography, you’ll be dazed and loopy and halfway to going bibblybibblybibbly too. It may seem all Greek to you, especially with the insistence on including the city of publication (“Honey, let’s go to Harmondsworth, I need to buy some Penguin books”). If it does, well enough; Greek is where this word is from: bibliographía, from biblion, “book” (or “paper” or “papyrus”), and graphé, “writing.” Since the early 19th century we’ve used this word for a list of books for a specific purpose (e.g., a certain topic, or a certain term paper). And this five-syllable Greek word, which sounds rather like a photocopier running off a copy of some reference you need, and which has a taste of Bible (the good “book”) and graphite (the mineral you write with), seems so much more appropriate to a library (bibliotheque) and its scholarly denizens (with their myriad other -ographies) and to antiquarian booksellers, lunettes, foxing and century-old dust than does the businesslike Latinate references or the half-Saxon, half-Latin proletarian works cited (which sounds rather like a way of saying “excited by work”).

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