Absey Zed icon Absey Zed

An "Absey book," or ABC-book, is an elementary text used to teach the alphabet and basic reading. Zed is the 26th and final letter of the Roman alphabet. To alphabetize is to arrange things in alphabetical order, A to Z, from first to last. When playing Absey Zed, you create new words by building on the letters of the last word placed on the board.


Alphabetizing is a very useful, efficient method of organizing material. When you look for a word, you immediately know approximately where it is located in a list (near the beginning, half way through, etc.). Then with a few to several binary decisions (move toward the beginning or the end?) you can find the item or the page on which the item is located.

Although alphabetization dates back a couple of thousand years, reference works were usually arranged using various types of categories. It seems obvious to us that certain works, such as dictionaries and telephone books, are most useful when the entries are alphabetized, but the first alphabetically-arranged, English-language dictionary and encyclopedia didn't appear until 1604 and 1704.


Dating from the 15th century the hornbook was the simplest of ABC-books. It consisted of a piece of paper placed on a wooden board. Paper was expensive so it was protected by a thin, transparent layer of animal horn or mica.1 The letters of the alphabet, often a syllabary and sometimes other material such as the Lord's Prayer were displayed.

early hornbook

As paper became less expensive battledores made of thick paper or cardboard gradually replaced hornbooks. Some were shaped like hornbooks, but usually the paper was folded so as to provide more pages and, therefore, more material including illustrations.2

paper hornbook paper hornbook paper hornbook

Above left: a hornbook-shaped battledore. Above middle: a battledore closed. Above right: a different battledore opened.

Multipage primers in the form of small books or booklets contained illustrations, excerpts from the Bible, simple lines of poetry, moralisms and similar material. The New England Primer dates from the 1680s.

page of New England Primer

Above: a page from an 1828 version of The New England Primer.

In the 1550s another type of ABC-book appeared which included a catechism. Early versions of The ABC with the Catechism were produced by Edward Whitchurch (1551), John Day (1553), Alexander Nowell (1570). It changed little over the years.

The ABC with the CatechismThe ABC with the Catechism

Above: 1781 version of The ABC with the Catechism.

This is the type of "Absey" book referred to in Shakespeare's King John, I, i, 189-98:

Philip, the Bastard:      Now your traveller,
   He and his toothpick at my worship's mess,
   And when my knightly stomach is surffic'd
   Why then I suck my teeth, and catechize
   My picked man of countries. "My dear sir,"
   Thus, leaning on mine elbow, I begin,
   "I shall beseech you" -- that is question now;
   And then comes answer like an Absey book;
   "O sir," says question, "at your best command,
   At your employment, at your service, sir."3

Historically, most people could neither read nor write and many who could read could not write. Although readers "learned the alphabet," most did not "know" the alphabet in the sense of being able to determine what letter comes after g or before s or that boat comes after bear but before bowl without mentally working through the alphabet. It was a skill they simply had no use for.

Today, it's a necessary skill. We take it for granted that people know how to alphabetize and that reference works and list -- telephone books, encyclopedias, dictionaries, library catalogs, class lists -- have been alphabetized.

Robert Cawdrey

In 1604 Robert Cawdrey published Table Alphabeticall, generally considered to be the first, alphabetically-arranged, English-language dictionary.

page from Table Alphabeticall2 pages from Table Alphabeticall

Before Cawdrey lists of English words useful for various purposes (such as, spelling lists and glosses) and bilingual dictionaries of foreign words accompanied by definitions in English had been published. But his Table Alphabeticall was the first English-only dictionary -- a book of English words with English definitions using a consistent format.

Table Alphabeticall was not much like a modern dictionary. It contained only 2534 headwords. The definitions were brief, sometimes consisting of a single synonym. It did not contain etymologies, although words that Cawdrey believed to be of French or Greek (but not Latin) origin were marked. It gave no guidance about how to pronounce the words nor did it include examples illustrating how the word had been or should be used.

In "To the Reader" Cawdrey says that public speakers, especially preachers, use inkhorn terms (pedantic, affected); they should use the common language "so as the most ignorant may well vnderstand them." He notes that travelers returning from France and Italy "pouder their talke" with foreign terms. Either there must be two kinds of English -- "learned English" and "rude English," "Court talke" and "Country-speech" -- or we must "banish all affected Rhetorique, and vse altogether one manner of language."

His book (paraphrasing its full title4) was meant to teach the writing and understanding of hard English words so that people could more easily and better understand what they heard or read and also be able to use the words correctly themselves.

The work must have proved useful: there were three later editions (1609, 1613, 1617). The last defined 3,264 words.5

An important feature of Cawdrey's dictionary is that the words are listed in alphabetical order.

When we use an alphabetized dictionary, we don't scan from the beginning until we come to the word we are looking for. We open it to the approximate location of the first letter of the word. We then use the guide words at the top of the pages and determine if we are too far toward the front or the back of the book; that is, does the word we are looking for come before or after this page (if not on this page)? We then relocate by turning one, several or many pages and do same thing again. It's quite an amazing process: with only a few to several binary decisions we can locate the page a word is on in a book containing tens or hundreds of thousands of words. And we can do this with any alphabetized list even if we don't know the language; for example, looking up a French word in a French-English dictionary or a name in a Spanish phone book.

But alphabetizing was unusual enough in Cawdrey's time that he felt the need to explain how to find a word in his book:

If thou be desirous (gentle Reader) rightly and readily to vnderstand, and to profit by this Table, and such like, then thou must learne the Alphabet, to wit, the order of the Letters as they stand, perfecty without booke, and where euery Letter standeth: as (b) neere the beginning, (n) about the middest, and (t) toward the end. Nowe if the word, which thou art desirous to finde, begin with (a) then looke in the beginning of this Table, but if with (v *) looke towards the end. Againe, if thy word beginne with (ca) looke in the beginning of the letter (c) but if with (cu) then looke toward the end of that letter. And so of all the rest. &c.

Sooner or later someone would have published the first English dictionary in something like the modern form with entries arranged alphabetically, but Cawdrey was the first in 1604. The "Historical Introduction" to the Oxford English Dictionary calls A Table Alphabeticall the "original acorn" from which the "oak" (the OED) grew.

John Harris

One hundred years after Cawdrey's Table Alphabeticall John Harris published Lexicon Technicum: Or, an Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (1704), the first, alphabetically-arranged, English encyclopedia.

Harris' Universal English Dictionary

The Universal Dictionary was more than a dictionary; it included essays in addition to definitions of terms: "the Reader may not only find here an Explication of the Technical Words, or the Terms of Art made use of in all the Liberal Sciences, and such as border nearly upon them, but also those Arts themselves." It was not "universal"; it covered some subjects, such as mathematics, science and law, and omitted others. Harris did not write most of the material; he compiled and edited it drawing on many sources. It was over 1000 pages long and included plates, tables, diagrams and illustrations. The work was popular; although Harris died in 1719, various later editions were published until the fifth in 1736 (and a supplement in 1744).


Imagine that alphabetization had not been "invented." Now imagine trying to find the definition of the word noisome in a dictionary that used some sort of classification system -- for example, the one found in Roget's Thesaurus (without the alphabetized index, of course). The context in which the word was used might suggest a category -- "She felt very uncomfortable in the crowded noisome room" -- or not. It would not be easy to determine that noisome can be found in (1) Matter\Organic Matter\Sensation\Special\Ordor\Fetor, (2) Volition\Individual Volition\Prospective Volition\Badness and (3) Volition\Individual Volition\Prospective Volition\Insalubrity.

Sears and Roebuck 1897 ad for Encyclopaedia Brittanica

The task would be even more difficult if you were using a multi-volume reference work.

A computer using a simple binary search routine can find an item in an alphabetized list very quickly. The search routine looks at the word in the middle of a list. If that is not the word sought it determines if it is greater than or less than the word sought. It then looks at the word in the middle of the upper half or lower half of the list and does the same thing again. Each decision divides in half the number of words remaining to be searched. Start with 1,000,000 words. If the word sought is not the middle word determine if it is greater than or less than the word being looked at. Now there are only 500,000 words to search. Look at the middle word in that group. Make a decision. Now there are only 250,000 words left. This continues: 125,000, 62,500, 31,250, 15,625, 7,812, and so on. At any point, of course, the word may be found. Such a simple routine can find a word in an alphabetized list of over 1 million words making only 19 binary decisions (less than\greater than). This would be the worst-case situation in which the word searched for is the last word looked at. It's possible it could find the word with one binary decision.

Obviously, this is much faster than scanning down through an unalphabetized list of 1,000,000 words. The routine can be sped up in a number of ways. The most obvious is to do what people do when they look for a word in a dictionary: start looking in the group of words that begins with the same letter as the word being sought. That is, if looking for dog start in the D section not in the middle of the entire list. Thus, we can find noisome in the alphabetized index to Roget's Thesaurus very quickly.6

Some people in Cawdrey's time could read. Some of them wanted to be able to better understand what they read and heard and to improve their own speaking and writing skills. Some of them were wealthy enough to buy books. Still, Cawdrey had to explain to his literate, wealthy, motivated readers how to look up words in his alphabetized dictionary.

His instructions remind us that we must be taught how to use an alphabetized list. Today, we all learn how to put words in alphabetical order. It's a simple skill that makes life easier. But we should not take it for granted.

On the computer network of a local school district each teacher has a folder in which to post assignments and documents for students. The names of the folders are comprised of the teachers' first and last names in that order. Students must look up assignments using their teachers' first names!

   Aaron Thomas
   John Doe
   Mary Jones
   Paula Doe
   Robert Smith
   Sean Jenkins
   Stanley Adams

The list should look like this:

   Adams, Stanley
   Doe, John
   Doe, Paula
   Jenkins, Sean
   Jones, Mary
   Smith, Robert
   Thomas, Aaron

Computer software does the sorting, but someone did not understand that the folders had to be titled with the teachers' last names first. A list of over 100 names alphabetized by first names is almost useless.

As The Royal Battledore (see above) tells us:

   He that ne'er learns his A, B, C,
   For ever will a Blockhead be.
   But he that learns these Letters fair,
   Shall have a Coach to take the Air.

Absey Zed

When playing Absey Zed, you create new words by building on the letters of the last word placed on the board which is always displayed using the color of the player who put it on the board. You cannot play anywhere else; at least one letter of your new word must horizontally or vertically touch a letter of the last word played.

game board

Above Blue is forming the word FOX on the word GIFT which was the last word played (by Red).

When a valid word is checked, the score for the word is the sum of (1) the letter-points of the primary word and all new cross-words and (2) any bonus points.

When you use all seven tiles in your tray to form a word (sometimes call a bingo), the total points for the play are doubled.

The player with the highest score at the end of a game is the winner.

See also

Quick Intro to Absey Zed

Drudges Two and Dictionaries

Humor in Dictionaries

Roget's Tree and Thesauruses


1Mica is a mineral which can be split so as to form thin, flexible transparent sheets.

2The term battledore has a number of meanings. It can refer to an early ABC-book; an early form of badminton; and various kinds of rackets and paddles: used to play the game battledore and badminton; used to flatten laundry and glass; used to place items in an oven.

3In Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, (V, i, 46-48) and Ben Jonson's Volpone (IV, ii) there are references to hornbooks which are also allusions to cuckoldry.

4The full title is: A Table Alphabeticall, conteyning and teaching the true writing, and vnderstanding of hard vsuall English wordes, borrowed from the Hebrew, Greeke, Latine, or French. &c. With the interpretation thereof by plaine English words, gathered for the benefit & helpe of Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other vnskilfull persons. Whereby they may the more easilie and better vnderstand many hard English wordes, which they shall heare or read in Scriptures, Sermons, or elswhere, and also be made able to vse the same aptly themselues.

5The only surviving copy of the 1604 edition is held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. According to James Gleick in The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood (New York: Pantheon Books, 2011) 26-69, Cawdrey's Table Alphabeticall is the first use in print of thirty-one of the 2500+ headwords.

6Authors used to use asterisks in place of people's names to create the illusion of realism (as if the author couldn't or wouldn't name the actual person) -- for example, Lord B*** or Miss ****. At the front of William Leech's satirical poem The Obliviad: A Satire (New York: James Miller; London: B. Quartich, 1879) there is a multi-page, alphabetical list of "Persons Celebrated in This Poem." He humorously parodies the form by ending it this way:

   Yankee, i. 163.
   Yonge, Charlotte, iv. 104.
   Zoilus, i. 44. iv. 541.
   * * * *, i. 374. ii. 413.
   * * *, ii. 415.
   * *, ii. 417.