Last holiday season, we started a tradition of collecting new short pieces by 99% Invisible producers into “mini-story” episodes. Listeners asked for more, so we’re back at it again with tales of a backward index, alarm design, actual alchemy and Seattle’s historic underground. Also: Roman gives his take on the new presidential challenge coin redesign.
The Backward Index by Delaney Hall
“Why would anyone type out 315,000 words spelled in reverse?” asks Editor-at-Large for Merriam-Webster Peter Sokolowski. “Say you wanted to find out how many words end in ‘-ology’ or ‘-ism.’ How would you figure it out?” Today, you would use a computer, but in the mid-1900s, an analog solution was needed.
Exactly who invented this “Backward Index” — housed at the offices of Merriam-Webster in Springfield, MA — is still a bit of a mystery. But Sokolowski has found that the project was championed by Philip Gove, editor of Merriam-Webster’s Third Unabridged in the 1950s. As the new volume’s production wound down, Gove began re-tasking staff to help compile the index. Employees typed out words, backward first (with spaces between letters) then forward on 3-by-5-inch cards.
Hundreds of thousands of these cards were created and and kept in a card catalog on the editorial floor. Later, in the 1990s, the company moved to the collection, filling 129 filing boxes, into the basement.
The index proved useful in all kinds of ways. “For example,” writes Sokolowski, “it could help identify a set of related terms that should be defined in similar ways, including open compounds (Highland pony, Shetland pony, Welsh pony), closed compounds (blocklike, clocklike, rocklike, socklike, chalklike), and morphologically related terms (phytopathological, ethological, lithological, ornithological).
Thus,” he continues, “looking up all the diseases that end in –itis or all the doctrines and theories that end in –ism was now possible.” The index could also be used to find sets of words that rhymed or to easily count the number of words that end in a particular series of letters, like -tionary.