Help with Advanced Languages: Mastering your Dictionary

We’ve had a few posts on how important your dictionary skills are to your language success, and we’ve even told you some of our favorite Latin and Greek dictionaries. But there’s another trick to mastering the dictionary, and that is to figure out its abbreviation system. Abbreviations provide important information, especially about verbs, but that information is provided in a sort of secret code. It’s not consistent between dictionaries, and sometimes not even within the same dictionary, but it’s worth learning some of the most common abbreviations. Yes, every dictionary will give them to you at the front — but do you really want a dictionary for your dictionary? I didn’t think so.

In addition to the front material of the hard-copy dictionary (or its PDF equivalent), some websites offer comprehensive abbrevations lists that are keyed to a specific dictionary. They’ll be your best bet when you’re stuck on one particular abbreviation that you’ve never seen before: just head to the appropriate website (LSJ, OLD, etc.) and use the ‘find on page‘ function (command/control + f) to input your abbreviation. This post is focused on more common abbreviations: the ones that are largely standardized across multiple dictionaries. I’ve limited the list to grammatical terms with a few additions that deal with genre, but there are also lists of authors, editors, and some stylistic abbreviations that you might come across. It might be useful to consult the OCD abbreviations if you’re not sure about an author. Most publishing houses now require that English-language citations follow the OCD rather than the OLD (older publications use both).

Unlike other lists, which are alphabetical, I’ve divided the abbreviations below by topic. That’s because it’s really helpful to know what these abbreviations mean, and it’s easier to memorize a group of related terms than a random collection that all start with the same letter! So again, if you’re looking for a specific term, this might not be the post for you. But if you’re trying to get faster at understanding your dictionary entries, take note. Most of these abbreviations work in both Latin and Greek; if they only apply to one language, I’ve pointed it out. They’re also useful for deciphering footnotes!

Nouns and adjectives

You should know most of these already if you’re an advanced student!

  • nom(inative)
  • acc(usative)
  • gen(itive)
  • dat(ive)
  • abl(ative) — not relevant for Greek, obviously
  • voc(ative) — but be careful: voc. can also stand for an oblique case of vox, in this context meaning ‘word’.
  • sing(ular) — sometimes just sg.
  • plur(al) — sometimes just pl.
  • fem(inine)
  • masc(uline)
  • neut(er)
  • comp(arative)
  • superl(ative)
  • indecl(inable)
  • indef(inite)

All about verbs

  • pres(sent)
  • impf — imperfect
  • fut(ure)
  • aor(ist) — only relevant for Greek
  • perf(ect) — sometimes just pf.
  • plupf. — pluperfect (sometimes plpf. or pluperf.)
  • fut(ure) perf(ect)
  • indic(ative) — sometimes just indic.
  • inf(initive)
  • imp(erative) — sometimes imper.
  • subjunc(tive) — occasionally subj. (not to be confused with subj(ect)!)
  • part(iciple) — sometimes pple.
  • act(ive)
  • pass(ive)
  • dep(onent)
  • med(ium) — middle (mostly Greek). The spelling comes from the Latin medium.
  • impers(onal)
  • intr(ansitive) and tr(ansitive)
  • contr(acted) — mostly Greek

Extremely common

  • cf — confer (compare)
  • i(d) e(st) — that is
  • e(xempli) g(ratia) — for example (TIP: it’s really common to confuse i.e. and e.g. Be careful!)
  • et al(ii/ia/iae) — and others (NB: you know what’s cool about this abbreviation? The gender is elided! That means you can use it for any group of others without making a mistake. Just make sure you only use one l…)
  • n(ota) b(ene) — notice, take note. Probably my favorite.
  • et c(etera, ceteri, etc.) — and others; another one where the gender is elided. Fun factoid: in the 19th century, authors used an ampersand for et: &c.
  • viz. — namely
  • esp(ecially) — sorry, no Latin or Greek here.
  • vel sim(ilaris) — or something
  • ibid(em) — in the same place (referring to the immediately preceding reference). NB: this can only be used when you are referring to the same work. If you’re talking about Homer, and you switch from the Iliad to the Odysseyyou cannot use ibid. Instead, use id. (see next point).
  • id(em)/ead(em) — the same (person). TIP: this abbreviation is gendered. Use id. when referring to Homer, but ead. for Sappho.
  • ex(ample)
  • no. — number (for those of you who grew up with hashtags, the symbol # also means number).
  • diff(erently) — used primarily in dictionaries.

Specifically for textual criticism

  • fr(agmentum/a) — fragment(s)
  • dub(ius), incert(um/a), f(alsa) — various degrees of doubt about a reading or document
  • inscr(iptio), epig(raphic) — used to refer to inscribed texts.
  • pap(yrus) — used to refer to texts written with a brush on a paperlike surface — it doesn’t really need to be papyrus (e.g., the Vindolanda texts). The exception may be ostr(aca), but that is rare in dictionaries.
  • conjec(ture) — a guess made by an editor; similar to suppl.
  • suppl(ement[ed]) — filled in, usually by comparison to a similar document.
  • sc(ilicet) — supply (used when a word has been lost or purposefully omitted)
  • m(etri) c(ausa), metr(i) gr(atia) — to fit the meter
  • l(ege) — read (suggesting that the author has made a mistake). E.g., “per aquo (lege aquam)
  • ap(ud) — in; used to cite the author who quotes a fragment. E.g., “Cato (ap. Nonius) says…” Cato is fragmentary; we know he’s the author because Nonius tells us.
  • var(iant) — indicates a variant reading or spelling

Cross-references:

  • op(eri) cit(ato) — in the work already mentioned. Usually without page number, either because the page number was in the first reference or because it’s an overarching theme of the work.
  • loc(o) cit(ato), l.c., ll.c. — in the place(s) already mentioned (usually with page number). Loc. cit. is both sg. and pl. L.c. is technically sg., ll.c. is technically pl. I don’t see that distinction a lot. NB: a lot of these abbreviations become plutal by repeating the final consonant of the noun. So l.c. –> ll.c. (citato is not a noun), fr. — frr., etc. TIP: I do this to abbreviate English all the time. So useful.
  • ad loc. — in the place (mentioned). Usually used when referring to a commentary. For example, if you’re discussing Livy 1.9, you might refer your reader to ‘Ogilvie ad loc.
  • sq, sqq — following (from sequor). Sq. is sg., sqq. is pl.
  • q(uod/uae) v(ide) — see. The q is always acc. and directs you to the work(s). Unlike loc. cit. and op. cit., q.v. can be used on the work’s first appearance in a text. E.g., “consequor follows the conjugation of sequor (q.v.).”
  • s(ub) v(erbo) — under the heading of. Used to direct attention to a subsection of something larger. E.g., “see the LIMC s.v. Herakles.”
  • v(ide) — see. I don’t see this as often in modern works, but it does appear in older dictionaries such as the LSJTIP: don’t get it confused with versus, which is abbreviated v. in modern legal cases.
  • Classics-specific (I think)
  • Aeol(ic), Ion(ic), Dor(ic), Hom(eric) — helps you locate a specific dialectical form. Greek only.
  • alci, alqm, alqd, alqo — I saved the best for last here. These abbreviations are derived from aliquis, and they tell you what case your verb takes. Newer dictionaries will give you the case in English (e.g., “careo (+abl)”); older dictionaries often won’t.
    • al(i)c(ui) is dative
    • al(i)q(ue)m is accusative of person
    • al(i)q(uo)d is accusative of thing (i.e., not-person)
    • al(i)q(u)o is ablative
    • Where’s the genitive? you might ask. Usually not in this format (I think I’ve seen alcs once), but rather c. gen. (cum genitivo)

 

There are many, many more potential abbreviations, but these are the most common that I could think of. And while abbreviations, especially foreign-language abbreviations, are being phased out by some governments (e.g., in the UK), that won’t change the older materials that delight in them. So let me know: did I cover the ones you’ve seen? Any important ones that I missed? Too much information overload? All comments welcome!


~J.

 

 

 

 

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