A Place for Everything

The Curious History of Alphabetical Order


By Judith Flanders

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From a New York Times-bestselling historian comes the story of how the alphabet ordered our world.
A Place for Everything is the first-ever history of alphabetization, from the Library of Alexandria to Wikipedia. The story of alphabetical order has been shaped by some of history's most compelling characters, such as industrious and enthusiastic early adopter Samuel Pepys and dedicated alphabet champion Denis Diderot. But though even George Washington was a proponent, many others stuck to older forms of classification — Yale listed its students by their family's social status until 1886. And yet, while the order of the alphabet now rules — libraries, phone books, reference books, even the order of entry for the teams at the Olympic Games — it has remained curiously invisible.
With abundant inquisitiveness and wry humor, historian Judith Flanders traces the triumph of alphabetical order and offers a compendium of Western knowledge, from A to Z.

A Times (UK) Best Book of 2020


The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity.… We fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful.


Philosophical Investigations, §129



1.  A round robin letter of 1621, petitioning for the right of Huguenots to settle in the New World. Wikicommons.

2.  The first page of a letter in rebus form from Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). The Letters of Lewis Carroll, ed. Morton N. Cohen, with Roger Lancelyn Green, vol. 1, c. 1837–1885 (London: Macmillan, 1979).

3.  Old Babylonian clay tablet, c.1900–1700 BCE. British Museum.

4.  A table showing some of Ralph de Diceto’s marginal symbols in his Abbreviationes chronicorum, Chronicles Précised. British Library Board. Bridgeman Images.

5.  The Bakhshali manuscript, third to seventh centuries. Wikicommons.

6.  A manuscript copy of the Decretum Gratiani dating from the first half of the thirteenth century. Sion/Sitten, Archives du Chapitre/Kapitelsarchiv, Ms. 89, f. 223r.

7.  Abraham Ortelius, Thesaurus geographicus, Geographical Treasure-house. Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp—UNESCO, World Heritage.

8.  A writing desk belonging to either Henry VIII or Catherine of Aragon, c. 1525. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

9.  The Wunderkammer of Ole Worms. Wikicommons.

10. A piece of specialist furniture for categorizing and displaying a collection, illustrated in Levinus Vincent, The Wonders of Nature (1706).

11. A type case housing a printer’s metal type. Alamy.

12. Harrison’s Ark, as illustrated in Vincentius Placcius, The Art of Excerpting (1689).

13. An illustration of the typographical desk from Louis Dumas, La biblioteque des enfans, ou les premiers elemens des lettres, The Children’s Library, or, First Elements of Writing (1733).

14. A page illustrating Locke’s indexing system for commonplace books.

15. A sample page from Bayle’s Dictionaire critique.

16. A modern solander box. Macmillan Publishers International Limited.

17. The New York Times newsroom in the 1920s. Wikicommons.

18. An advertisement for a copy press; an 1890s office.

19. A pigeonhole-style desk in use. Artokoloro Quint Lox Ltd/Alamy.

20. The original Shannon lever-arch file. Hemesh Alles.


21. A fifteenth-century depiction of the trivium and the quadrivium. Unibibliothek Salzburg, M III 36. Wikicommons.

22. The presentation of an index to the Gospel Commentary of William of Nottingham to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, MS Laud Misc 165, f.5r.

23. Jan Gossart, Portrait of a Tax-collector (c. 1530). National Gallery of Art, Washington.

24. A Flemish manuscript of Christine de Pizan’s The City of Women, 1475. British Library Board. Bridgeman Images.

25. The eighteenth-century library at Admont Abbey. © Jorge Royan / www.royan.com.ar / CC BY-SA 3.0.

26. Bartholomeus van der Helst, Portrait of Daniël Bernard (1669). Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam.

27. Detail from Gerrit Berckheyde, A Notary in His Office (1672). Wikicommons.

28. Detail from Chardin, The House of Cards (1736/7). The National Gallery, London. Bequeathed by Mrs. Edith Cragg, as part of the John Webb Bequest, 1925.

29. A collector’s cabinet, 1730. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

30. A Wooton desk, after 1875. Alamy.

31. Gospels of Maél Brigte, or the Armagh Gospels, c. 1138. British Library Board. Bridgeman Images.

32. An early fifteenth-century manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, known as the Ellesmere Chaucer. EL 26 C 9, Huntington Library, San Marino, California.


WRITING, FROM ITS EARLIEST DAYS, HAS BEEN THOUGHT OF as a gift from the gods: in Egypt it was given to humanity by Thoth, the god of culture; in Babylonia, by Nebo, the god of destiny; in Sumeria, it was bestowed by Nabû, the “scribe of the gods.” The Greeks sometimes thought writing was granted to mankind by Hermes, the messenger of the gods; at other times they reported that it was given by Zeus to the Muses. Odin bestowed the gift in Norse legend; in India, the elephant-headed god Ganesh used one of his tusks as a pen; while the Mayan Itzamna, a creator-god, first named the objects in the world, and then gave humans the ability to write those names down. The Jews were taught that God had handed the skill to the world through his intermediary, Moses; in the Qur’an, Allah is he who “taught the pen.” As late as the fifteenth century, han’gul, the newly created script of Korea, was said to have been produced by “the revelation of heaven to the mind of the sage king.”1

How writing came to be, it appears, is a question that has been explored for almost as long as writing itself. And therefore what writing does—it enables us to read, to gather information, and to pass that information on—seems so obvious that we barely consider the magnitude of this ability. Yet reading and writing, and what we do with those things, are not obvious at all. It might be said that the world broadly divides into two types of writing systems: alphabetic and syllabic, and ideographically based methods. The alphabet, as far as we can tell, was written from its very earliest days in a set order. Why, we don’t know, although ease of memorization seems possible, even likely. Nonalphabetic writing systems, by contrast, were organized in a variety of ways—by sound, by meaning, by written structure or shape.

To readers and writers of an alphabetic language such as English, the assumption I just made above—that the elements that make up a writing system, the characters, must be ordered, must be sorted or organized in some way—is automatic, and unquestioned.i Equally, it has become automatic to assume that, once our writing systems evolved, writing was used to give permanence to thoughts and ideas; and then, that methods were devised to enable us to return to those thoughts and ideas, whether ours or someone else’s. For writing is a powerful tool—not merely a tool that permits Person A to notify Person B that such-and-such occurred, or will occur, or some other piece of information, but a tool that enables Person B to be notified of these occurrences centuries after Person A has died. (And, it must be noted, it is almost automatic today to label unknown people alphabetically, beginning with Persons A and B; citing anonymous Persons J and D, for example, would be considered bizarre.)

Writing is powerful because it transcends time, and because it creates an artificial memory, or store of knowledge, a memory that can be located physically, be it on clay tablets, on walls, on stone, on bronze, on papyrus, parchment, or paper. And for centuries, that was how it was used. Words were written, and they were stored. We can guess from what has survived that it was expected that this stored material would be referred back to. But how, and why, did we learn this art, or science, of reference, of “looking things up”? How did we learn to find what we needed when we needed it, in the mass of written words that have surrounded us daily for a millennium and more?

IT IS HARD TODAY TO IMAGINE not being able to look something up—not to know how to use an index, a dictionary, or a phone book. It is harder still to imagine a world in which there are no indexes, no dictionaries, no phone books. Ordering and sorting, and then returning to the material sorted via reference tools, have become so integral to the modern Western mindset that their significance is both almost incalculable and curiously invisible. For categorizing is what we do every day of our lives, frequently every hour of every day, and not just through paper. We use dozens of products daily without ever considering that they have been specially designed for our perpetual sorting needs, so that we can locate material swiftly and without effort.

Thus, a wallet has a pocket for coins, longer slots for banknotes, shorter ones for credit cards; handbags have small flat pockets for mobile phones, zipped pockets for keys, flaps for bus passes. These of course are personal sorting categories: I might put my phone in a pocket someone else uses for a wallet, and vice versa. Other items need to be sorted in ways that are comprehensible to a wider audience. A newspaper separates articles reporting on internal political events from articles dealing with world news, those on sports from arts reviews or editorials. This is not done for the ease of the newspapers’ producers (a single journalist might write articles across several fields), but to assist their readers. The displays in supermarkets, by contrast, are in part dictated by technological constraints—until recently, chilled and frozen foods were almost always found against the shops’ walls, where the cabinets could be plugged into electrical outlets—but otherwise they use broad categories: meat, fish, fresh fruit and vegetables, just as furniture stores such as IKEA sort their items by room—bedroom furniture here, kitchen equipment there.

These methods are so obvious to us, we barely think of them as organizing or sorting, and yet of course that is what they are. They allow someone searching for information, or physical objects, to locate what they need. Yet what all these methods rely on is some, even if limited, previous knowledge on the part of the person doing the searching. A reader has to know that an article on the French Open tennis tournament will be categorized by the game being played, rather than by the country in which it takes place, in “sports” rather than “world news.” Similarly, supermarket shoppers are expected to look for their tomatoes in the vegetable section, even though they are technically fruit; and that dill, if it is dried, will be found in the herbs and spices section, but if it is fresh, with the vegetables.

Almost all sorting systems similarly require some level of familiarity on the part of their users. To modern eyes, printed lists and alphabetical order are in essence synonymous—we assume alphabetical order has always been humanity’s default sorting method for things that are written down. It is an unspoken assumption of alphabetic writing systems that the alphabet is primary. Letters near the beginning of the alphabet are somehow superior to those that follow: alpha males dominate romantic fiction; in the 1950s, B-movies followed or preceded the main feature; in the 1960s the B-side of records carried the songs that were not expected to be hits. The preeminence of ABC over, say, DEF, or LMN, runs unconsciously through every part of the world that uses an alphabet, and some regions that do not: there have been broadcasting companies named ABC in the USA, Australia, Britain, the Philippines, and even in Japan, a nonalphabet country; it is also the title of a Swedish news program, a Spanish newspaper, and several food companies and cinema chains across the globe. As well as an Arab Banking Corporation in alphabetic Bahrain, there is an Agricultural Bank of China in decidedly nonalphabetic China. ABC is a programming language, and a streaming algorithm. English-speakers learning first aid are reminded to check ABCs (airways, breathing, circulation). Mathematics has an abc conjecture, an ABC formula, and Approximate Bayesian Computation. The Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof Islands off the coast of Alaska are known as the ABC Islands; their counterparts in the Lesser Antilles are Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao.

This alphabetic predominance makes it hard for us to remember today that the phrase “alphabetical order” has two parts, and that they might be of equal weight: “alphabetical,” yes, but also “order.” And that all order, and ordering, is not of necessity alphabetical—indeed, for centuries the idea of ordering by random chance, by the letters of the alphabet, was considered less useful than a multitude of other sorting methods—geographical, chronological, hierarchical, categorical. Sometimes things had, and continue to have, no visible organizing method, their innate order being so essential that it is simply remembered. For a medieval clergyman, what would have been the point of putting the books of the Bible in alphabetical order? To him, it was obvious that Genesis comes before Exodus, just as, to us, it is obvious that Monday comes before Tuesday, September before October. In fact, it is surprisingly difficult to put the days of the week or the months of the year into alphabetical order, because the days and months have a “natural” order, one that is not alphabetical.2

Other types of categorizing and sorting that were natural to generations past today seem as peculiar to us as April heading a list of the months of the year because it begins with A. Yet in a world more stratified than our own, sorting things hierarchically was once a natural impulse. The Domesday Book, that summary of land occupancy in England and parts of Wales produced for William the Conqueror in 1086, assessed the values of 13,418 places, organizing them first by status, then by geography, then by status again, and finally by wealth. The king came first, followed—broken down by region—by the great clergy, the powerful barons, and, lastly, each district’s most humble tenants.

But of course, for the information in the Domesday Book to be accessible to later readers, they had to know the regions of England and Wales, and the orders of hierarchy—who outranked whom. For, in all the millennia of reading and writing, only one major sorting system has evolved that requires no previous knowledge from the searcher: alphabetical order. To use it, the only thing searchers need to know is a list of approximately (depending on the language) two dozen characters, in an established order. They do not need to know on what continent a city is located to find it in an atlas, nor if a bishop outranks a cardinal to find him in a list of participants at a clerical summit. Neither do they need to know whether the English Civil War preceded or postdated the American Civil War to locate it in an alphabetical list of “Wars Through History”; nor, indeed, do they need to know whether a pumpkin is considered a vegetable or a fruit to search for it in a seed catalog.

Alphabetical order is in this way entirely neutral. Someone whose name begins with A is at the start of the list not because they are a great landowner, nor because they have more money, nor were born before the others on the list, but simply because of a random chance of the alphabet. This lack of inherent meaning, of preordained value, makes alphabetical order a sorting tool that does not reflect back to its users the values of its creators, nor even an image of the world in which it was created. In 1584, the compiler of the first French bibliography included a dedication to the king apologizing for his use of alphabetical order and acknowledging that his choice had upended hierarchy, allowing the possibility that entries for lesser men might well appear before those of their social superiors, children before their parents, the ruled before their rulers. “Certainly,” he wrote, “I have felt the impropriety of having thus observed an alphabetical or A, B, C order,” but he had nonetheless persisted with this system not, as we might assume today, to make the entries easier to find, but “to avoid all calumny, and to remain in amity with everyone”: that is, to ensure he did not trespass unknowingly against hierarchy by setting a less prominent person ahead of a greater one.3 In 1584, therefore, alphabetical order was still a fallback to some, a way of avoiding a social faux pas in print.

Two hundred years later, in the late eighteenth century, Harvard and Yale Colleges still used hierarchy and status as their primary sorting filter for their students, with enrollment lists ordered first by the students’ families’ social position and wealth, then subcategorized by whether or not their fathers had attended the same college. The students’ own performance powered their rise or fall in the class lists as the year progressed, but at formal events social status remained the sorting tool for the order in which students entered rooms, and for seating arrangements.4 Today, it is as unimaginable to contemplate ranking students by their parents’ wealth, or by their race or gender, as it is by the color of their hair or their perceived level of attractiveness to their fellow students (at least, not overtly). Nor do we, in our democratic age, group students by their grades, even though “Will the smart people sit at the front, please” was once routine.

The very benefit of alphabetical order, to our eyes, is that it says nothing at all about the people or objects being sorted: “The alphabet can help in finding [or organizing] things, but not in understanding them. It cannot tell you why a whale has more in common with an elephant than a shark.”5 It is value-neutral, simply guiding those using it to the places where they can learn meaning or value for themselves.

And yet, when looked at from this angle, alphabetical order seems oddly useless. That very value—that it is neutral—also means it is devoid of meaning, and therefore it is rarely the sorting system of first resort. Phone books, which appear to a modern eye to be entirely alphabetical, use at least two preliminary sorting filters: first by country, then by region or city (geographical), then by type, residential or business (occupational), before finally getting down to alphabetical. Schools that use alphabetical order to record their students in registers first divide the attending children by classes (age), and only then by the alphabet. Bookshops and libraries, too, rarely, if ever, rely purely on an alphabetical organizing system. My last name begins with F, and so does F. Scott Fitzgerald’s. This coincidence would tell readers nothing about our respective books, were they to see them sitting next to each other on a shelf. Which is why in virtually all bookshops, Flanders and Fitzgerald are separated: Fitzgerald in fiction; Flanders in nonfiction (primary sorting level). Then, Flanders is in “history,” Fitzgerald in, perhaps, “twentieth-century fiction” (secondary); after that, European history versus short-story writers (tertiary); and only then might the books be sorted Fa, Fe, Fi, Fl…

Of course, once these same books are taken home, there is no reason why Fitzgerald and Flanders might not be shelved side by side if their owners decide to use alphabetical order as their primary sorting system. Or if the system is to be used by a single or a limited number of searchers, more idiosyncratic or value-laden systems can work efficiently, based as they are on previous knowledge held by the searchers: all books with a yellow spine together, or books given to us by our mothers, or according to geographical or chronological order by place or date of purchase.

The short-story writer and essayist Jorge Luis Borges gave the most memorable, and picturesque, reminder of the reality that all sorting methods by their very nature are obscure: as the world is random, so too must be the methods that seek to categorize, and thus rationalize, the world. “Obviously,” he wrote, “there is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and conjectural… the impossibility of penetrating the divine scheme of the universe cannot dissuade us from outlining human schemes, even though we are aware that they are provisional.” He mocked a natural philosopher of the seventeenth century who had attempted through categorization and classification to invent an artificial world language, highlighting its “ambiguities, redundancies, and deficiencies,” and claiming that it reminded him of a (probably imaginary, and invented by Borges) Chinese encyclopedia, which classified all animals by dividing them into the following groups: “(a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.”6

CLASSIFICATION, AND THE SORTING TOOLS we have created to enable it, may never be quite as bizarre and as memorable as Borges’s mythical encyclopedia, but the history of how we moved from the arrival of the alphabet around 2000 BCE to the slow unfolding of alphabetical order as a sorting tool some three thousand years later, in the thirteenth century CE, is filled with nearly as many surprises and wonders.ii For sorting is, ultimately, magical—indeed, the word “abracadabra,” that invocation of magicians from classical times onward, is a word built on the first four letters of the Latin alphabet.7 This magical tool, the alphabet, bestows the ability to create order out of centuries of thought, of knowledge, of literature, scientific discovery, and history. Sorting, and classification, allow us to locate the information we need, and to disseminate it in turn. Without sorting, all the knowledge in the world would lie in great unsifted stacks of books, themselves unfindable, unread, and unknown.

Despite this, alphabetical order has remained almost unrecorded for most of its history. Its arrival was remarked on as it was laboriously invented and reinvented, explained and reexplained. But once it was assimilated, it swiftly faded into the background, becoming so much part of the scenery that everyone ceased to notice its existence. A historian of the development of the alphabet lamented the lack of study given to his discipline: there was no academic school of study called “history of writing,” he mourned, no museum, nor even a section of a museum, devoted to it. Instead, his field was divided up among anthropology, archaeology, Assyriology, Egyptology, ethnology, Mesoamerican studies, paleography, philology, and Sinology (to list them alphabetically).8 But at least there are disciplines for all of these things. Historians of Early Modern Europe are now beginning to study archiving and organization as they emerged in the Renaissance, but for most of history, to learn about classification was to be forced to read between the lines, to search out how people sorted by working backward from end results, where those have survived, to our best guesses as to their intentions.

It may be that classification more generally, and alphabetical order in particular, has been rendered invisible in part because of another automatic assumption, one we make about reading: that when we talk about reading, we are talking about narrative prose. Whether it’s a romance set in Siberia, a history of the Roman Empire, or a government report on the after effects of a hurricane, our notion of reading presupposes that we are being told some sort of story, where events happen in a careful arc, one after the other, and they have a meaning, or if not, the point is their lack of meaning. Readers are expected to start at the beginning of an essay, a newspaper article, or a book, then continue through the middle to the end. Yet there are so many other types of reading that we do daily: we browse, entering a text randomly until we find something that captures our attention; we search, jumping through a text to isolate a specific point or piece of information we need; we study, reading one text intensively, but breaking off to check the endnotes, to follow up a digression, to source a quote in another book, or to look up a definition or explanation in a reference work; and we revisit, returning to a text to reacquaint ourselves with something we already know.9

Even these different kinds of reading, however, make up just a tiny percentage of most people’s reading lives. We also read maps and GPS directions; we read the letterhead on office stationery; we read advertising copy in camping-gear catalogs; we read train or bus timetables; we read highway signs and street signs and signs that tell us when we can park our cars; we read the opening hours of shops, whose signs bear their names, which we also read, to distinguish them from the shops next door; we read the instructions on bottles of prescription pills, and directions on how to turn on the oven’s self-cleaner; we read menus and our list of appointments each day. And, of course, we scan many lists in alphabetical order for information: address books and contacts lists; indexes to books or maps; or lists of people named “Brown” on Wikipedia. Much of our reading, therefore, is not remotely narrative, not destinational, but instead is directed toward retrieving a single piece of information, which is often found by searching a list that is ordered alphabetically.10 But this form of reading is never written about in books and magazines, nor studied in universities. Often, it is barely considered even to be reading. And yet at home, at school, and at work, we make notes, which are ordered into shopping lists, reports, articles, letters, budgets, or other office documents; we compile lists—for our insurance companies, to build an address book, to inventory our possessions or a library, or to organize an office filing cabinet.

A Place for Everything is a look at the history of this ordering and classification, at how sorting came to be, in particular via the alphabet. Much of our lives is spent creating archives of documents, and then developing ways of finding those documents. The word “archive” itself comes from the Greek arkheion, meaning a magistrate’s residence, a place that housed not only government documents, but also papers lodged there by private citizens as a place of safe storage. And from there, as one of the earliest alphabetical list–makers, Isidore of Seville, noted, it came to encompass a chest or strongbox (arca) and an archive (archivum), as well as mystery (arcanum).11 An archive (the room) and an archive (the papers it contains) are both the container and the thing contained, while classification, whether alphabetical order or any other system, is the tool we use to navigate them, our map to guide us through this mysterious and secret world of paper. The chests used to store papers for most of history—the arks—subliminally return us to the Bible, to the Ark of the Covenant and to Noah’s Ark, containers of God’s word and all of the planet’s sentient beings. Arks are mere wooden boxes, and yet as such they symbolize the wisdom of the ages, of God’s promise for humanity.12



  • "Fascinating... A Place for Everything rewards us with a fresh take on our quest to stockpile knowledge. It feels particularly relevant now that search engines are rendering old ways of organizing information obsolete...That we have acquired so much knowledge is astounding; that we have devised ways to find what we need to know quickly is what merits this original and impressive book."—New York Times
  • "Fascinating . . . truly revelatory"—Wall Street Journal
  • "One of the many fascinations of Judith Flanders's book is that it reveals what a weird, unlikely creation the alphabet is...an intriguing history not just of alphabetical order but of the human need for both pattern and intellectual efficiency."—Guardian
  • "A charming repository of idiosyncrasy, a love letter to literacy that rightly delights in alphabetisation's exceptions as much as its rules."—Financial Times
  • “This is an utterly charming book, packed with engrossing details.”—The Times (UK)
  • "For readers who love language or armchair historians interested in the evolution of linguistics, this is catnip. For the mildly curious, it's accessible, narratively adventurous, and surprisingly insightful about how the alphabet marks us all in some way...A rich cultural and linguistic history."—Kirkus
  • "A Place for Everything presents itself as a history of alphabetical order, but in fact it is much more than that. Rather, as the title suggests, it offers something like a general history of the various ways humans have sorted and filed the world around them."—The Spectator
  • "A library and academic essential rather than a catchpenny popular read (that, by the way, is a compliment)."—The Times of London
  • "Quirky and compelling... [Flanders] is a meticulous historian with a taste for the offbeat; the story of alphabetical order suits her well."— Dan Jones, Sunday Times (UK)
  • "Surprising and copiously researched."—Times Literary Supplement
  • "Flanders is one of our outstanding popular historians.... [A Place for Everything] is an exemplar of the form on which it focuses."—The Critic
  • "Judith Flanders has a knack for making odd subjects accessible."—i
  • “Flanders is especially good in discussing when and why alphabetical order was not used, or was resisted, even after it was available....The prose is engaging [and] the examples are to the point[.]”
     —Jack Lynch, Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America

On Sale
Oct 20, 2020
Page Count
352 pages
Basic Books

Judith Flanders

About the Author

Judith Flanders is a social historian. Her works include the bestselling The Invention of Murder, Inside the Victorian Home, and The Victorian City. She is senior research fellow at the University of Buckingham, as well as a frequent contributor to the Sunday Telegraph, the Guardian, and the Wall Street Journal.

Learn more about this author