Help with Citation Abbreviations, Part 1: Secondary Sources

In this back-to-basics post (a nice theme for fall, if you ask me) I’m going to talk about how to figure out what all of those abbreviations are in the bibliography and notes of scholarly works.  I’m not sure if antiquity is worse than other academic disciplines in this regard, but looking at a typical bibliography of a scholarly work is a minefield of abbreviations for both primary and secondary sources.  In this post I will talk about how to decipher the abbreviations for secondary sources, and in a following post I’ll talk about the abbreviations for primary sources.

Let’s dive in and start with a random bibliography:



From M. B. Roller, “Demolished Houses, Monumentality, and Memory in Roman Culture.” CA 29 (2010). Free PDF available.



Notice that on this page alone I found five different abbreviations, none of them the same.  Some of these abbreviations will, over time, become familiar to you. For example, G&R is Greece and Rome – but it’s difficult to remember them all. There are hundreds of journals in classics! It’s more important to know what to do when you see the abbreviations in bibliographies so that you can find the articles that you need.

The first stop is L’annee philologique.  L’annee has a downloadable PDF list of journal abbreviations.  To download the PDF navigate to the homepage and look for the link called “List of Journal Abbreviations.”


The good news is that most of the abbreviations you’ll ever encounter are here (and I’ll talk below about what to do for other abbreviations). The bad news is that the PDF is over 50 pages long.  The easiest way to find your particular abbreviation is to search the PDF (using control + F for Windows and command + F for Mac).  Once you have the full text of the title you can look up the journal or book in your library catalog.

While the PDF from L’annee will answer most of your abbreviations questions, sometimes authors will use their own abbreviations within a book that are not standard and therefore not in the PDF. While it might seem at first glance that authors are just trying to talk to each other in incomprehensible code, the reason for the abbreviations is actual very simple. Sometimes authors refer to the same book over and over in their works (and let’s face it, sometimes these books have really long German names) and it’s much easier to refer to the works by an abbreviation. In this situation the best approach is to find the abbreviations page in the book (usually in the front matter).  If an author is using abbreviations consistently outside of citations, the abbreviations are likely found in the book’s abbreviations page.

Sometimes, especially in older and/or foreign-language scholarship, authors use different abbreviations (for example, ClAnt vs. CA for Classical Antiquity). Most of these alternative abbreviations are longer and more similar to the title of the journal. In this case, you can navigate to your list of abbreviations and start looking in the right alphabetical area. If you don’t have luck there, there’s always Google!

Every so often, you might get an abbreviation that really stumps you. In that case, you can try to Google the author’s last name and either a short version of the title or the date. Your results may include other bibliographies that cite the same work of scholarship with more conventional abbreviations, or even the work itself. Be persistent! Sometimes it can take several hours to track down one citation. That’s part of the joy (and frustration) of scholarship.

This post is short, but has two main takeaways:

  • First, there are often several abbreviations for a single journal. Don’t let that throw you! Just make sure that you’re consistent in your own bibliography and note-taking. When in double, follow L’année philologique.
  • And second, don’t be afraid to use a Google search. Sometimes Googling for scholarship is a bad idea (for example, when you need secondary sources, stat). But Googling for an abbreviation is nothing to be worried about. It will free up your time and energy for the more important work of scholarship: reading your article and putting together an argument.




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