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I just noticed this word for the first time today. What does it mean? The answer is below.

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us it means "The beginning or first words or lines of a treatise or poem in a [manuscript]," though it apparently extends more broadly to other works as well.


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  1. What do you mean you just noticed it for the first time? You’re on some kind of OED advisory panel. Aren’t you supposed to know all the words?

  2. Incipit it a type of vodka so powerful that a sip will knock you out.

  3. If you knew Latin you wouldn’t have to ask.

    1. If.

      1. “Si”, but I don’t recommend studying it one word at a time.

      2. You mean that you can be a professor of law without knowing Latin? What’s next? Pleadings in English? Women on the Supreme Court? It’s a slippery slope.

    2. I know Latin (and this what incipit literally means). That makes the derivation pretty transparent, but this usage was new to me.

  4. First I thought it meant something with too little salt, but then saw the “c”. I guessed something with the same root as “incipient”.

  5. The scripture texts read at a Roman Catholic Mass often have an incipit (a non-scriptural lead-in) added to the pericope (a unit of actual scripture text).

    The official explanation is:

    “Individual readings in the Lectionary are called pericopes, from a Greek word meaning a “section” or “cutting.” Because the Mass readings are only portions of a book or chapter, introductory phrases, called incipits, are often added to begin the Lectionary reading, for example, “In those days,” “Jesus said to his disciples,” etc.”

    1. This is the use with which I am familiar, and recognize incipit as the root of incipient, a much more common form.

  6. Media coverage and firearm acquisition in the aftermath of a mass shooting. NATURE Human Behavior Letters
    “⁋5. The incipit of a recent survey by Pew Research Center (Washington DC, USA) reveals the complex relationship between firearms and the US population: “As a nation, the U.S. has a deep and enduring connection to guns.[ … ]”

  7. Why, the opposite of explicit, obviously, which usually just precedes a colophon. Just so everything is clear. Ha!

  8. I stopped reading the book after the insipid incipit.

  9. Hic incipit pestis. If you liked that one, wait until you start in on novissimus.

  10. One of the difficulties of being a native speaker who picks up vocabulary by reading somewhat literary books is that I sometimes don’t pick up on what people see as usage limitations or specific meanings. To me the Latin for “begins” appearing in directions seems similar to the Latin for “leave” (exit) appearing in play directions. I know the word, but as a native speaker I would regard its meaning as simply a fancy high-fallutin’ word for “beginning” generally. It would no more occur to me that the word incipit would refer specifically to the beginning of a manuscript or poem than it would occur to me that the word “exit” would refer specifically to leaving a stage.

  11. I’m going to venture that the dictionary is wrong here. Incipit is no more limited to the beginning of a book or manuscript then explicit is limited to the end of one.

    There are lots of cases where Latin words have become anglicized and people who retain the Latin form are pretty much limited to academic circles. It may well be that “agendum” these days is only used to refer to an agenda item at a specifically academic meeting, or “datum” to a data item at one. But that doesn’t mean that the meanings of these words are actually limited to only these contexts.

    Miriam-Webster gives it the general meaning “beginning.” I think that’s the correct English meaning, even though this is not a word that’s commonly used and it’s usage may well be limited to a few contexts in practice.

    1. To fully earn a Latin pedant’s wings, when using “explicit” to mean the end of something one must pronounce it with a hard “c”.

      1. Unless of course you’re going for *ecclesiastical* pedant’s wings, in which case the C is roughly like the CH in church.

        1. I’ll concede that “ecclesiastical” is better aligned with the earning wings trope.

  12. Beware the fallacy of the dictionary, that dictionary usage defines the word. General vernacular defines a word.

    Look to codified law that frequently begins with a subsection of definitions.

  13. So the teaser texts for blog posts (that show the first few lines of the post) are incipits?

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