July 25, 2004

The straight poop on Fiiijb

The mystery is solved! Yesterday I came across some OED citations like this:

1579 HAKE Newes out of Powles (1872) Fiiijb, O wylie wincking wyzard Woolues.

and wondered, "what in the world does 'Fiijb' mean?" Well, now I know.

Here's an authoritative answer from Jesse Sheidlower:

It's the foliation number, or the reference to the particular signature. Medieval and Early Modern books or manuscripts often did not have continuous page numbering, but rather foliation numbers, which had the general form of an initial capital letter indicating the particular quire (F being the sixth, expectedly), the leaf within the quire in Roman numerals ("iiij" being the fourth, with the "j" substituting for "i" in terminal position), and the recto/verso indication ("b" indicating the verso, the recto usually being unmarked).

So anything marked "Fiiijb" in OED, or in other un-Google-indexed bibliographical references, would be the back side of the fourth leaf of the sixth folio of the book/manuscript in question. If you imagine other references, you'll find lots of them--there are 264 examples of "Biij", for example, and 173 of "Cijb", and so on.

OED indicates the foliation number whenever necessary, either because (1) there's no continuous pagination, or (2) the continuous pagination is inaccurate, which is quite common. The foliation number is usually accurate because otherwise the text would never be bound up properly.


Jesse Sheidlower
Principal Editor
North American Editorial Unit
Oxford English Dictionary

P.S. I've long admired your posts on LL, but have never said so directly before, because there hasn't been an inducement like a FREE YEAR OF LL! Wow! So I'll say so now.

(Some further definitions, diagrams and examples can be found here, and (especially for hand-copied manuscripts rather than printed works) here. Look in the second reference to learn what a "hair/flesh disturbance" is, for example -- I for one wouldn't have guessed.)

Others who wrote in with essentially the same answer to the Fiiijb question were Steve at Language Hat, Jim at Uncle Jazzbeau's Gallimaufrey, and David Nash.

Lance Nathan took a sort of " new criticism" approach:

Never one to let a mystery lie, I set out to determine what "fiiijb" could mean. Searching the OED for "Powles" as the source of the quotation goes a long way to clearing it up. Every citation for the text (whose name varies in representation--Newes out of Powles Ch. -yd; Newes Powles Churchyarde; Newes out of Powles) includes something etymologically related to fiiijb. The first few are:

   Fvj, Giij, Hj, Eijb, Gjb, Diij, Dij, Dijb...

(More or less the same is true of searching for Caxton's "Geoffrie de la Tour", though in some instances the first letter is separated, as in "E. v", and in some what follows is written as a numeral, as in "E 4".)

Alas, I can't find the full text of Hake's poem online (nor Caxton's, which was as far as I looked), and I know I don't have a copy in book form. However, the fact that "O wylie wincking wyzard Woolues" was marked as Fiiijb and occurs in "The syxt Satyr" suggests that the first letter is a section marker. This is followed by a Roman numeral (with a "j"), then an optional b. (And from there, you can write a context-free grammar to generate these things.)

That doesn't completely answer the question. I don't know what the Roman numeral indicates, though if you have the text of the poem you may be able to sort that out.

Since some citations have no apparent Roman numeral ("Bjb", say), I strongly suspect that the "j" is an old way of of writing "i" at the end of a Roman numeral--the reason it only sometimes occurs is that not all Roman numerals end in an i. (Hence "Divb" in one citation: no "j" because there's no "i" at the end of the number.) A little Googling confirms this.

So you've got a section marker, a number indicating...stanza? I have no idea, I admit. And then, in some cases but not all, a 'b'. Again, I bet this would make sense if I had the poem in front of me.

This probably doesn't warrant a year's subscription to Language Log, but if it's worth at least a few months, I'll donate it to the Newark Public Library (having already paid in full for the next year myself).

I think it's fair to say that Lance (almost) figured the thing out entirely by reasoning from document-internal evidence. I hypothesize that he took this approach because (like me) he was handicapped by having wasted his youth on mathematics and computers instead of history and manuscripts. Lance sorted out the counting system quite accurately, but was on the wrong track in hypothesizing that the system refers to the author's or editor's divisions of the text, rather than to the physical structure of its production as a book. However, with access to a representation of one of the cited documents, I'm sure he would have gotten that too. I'm impressed -- he should consider a sideline in archeology or cryptology.

Several other people wrote in with the "j for the last i in a roman numeral" business. I also got several extremely creative suggestions that turned out to be not as close to the mark, such as the reader who almost managed to construe the whole thing as an acronym for a term found in the OED's guide to interpreting senses and citations --"Further Information In Index or Bibliography" -- but couldn't quite figure out what to do with the "j". She suggested "Further Information In Index or Joint Bibliography", which shows an admirable combination of gumption and inventiveness, but she was also a scrupulous enough scholar to point out that (unlike the un-jointed suggestion) this lacks specific textual support.

Anyhow, I've awarded a free year's subscription to Language Log to all who wrote in with a piece of the answer (or a sufficiently creative alternative), and another one to the Newark Public Library in the name of Lance Nathan. The rest of you will just have to pay at the usual rate.


[By the way, the full texts of Hake's poems are available from the LION ("LIterature ON line") database ("a fully searchable library of more than 350,000 works of English and American poetry, drama and prose, 131 full-text literature journals, and other key criticism and reference resources"). Many if not most university libraries subscribe to this, and perhaps some public libraries do as well. The full bibliographic record in question, from LION, is

Hake, Edward, fl. 1560-1604(fl.1566-1604) Newes out of Powles Churchyarde Now newly renued and amplifyed according to the accidents of the present time, 1579. and Otherwise entituled, Syr Nummus. Written in English Satyrs. Wherein is reprooued excessiue and unlawfull seeking after riches, and the euill spending of the same. Compyled by E. H.
Imprinted ... by John Charlewood, and Richard Ihones 1579

The LION version indicates the pagination (though without page numbers, just with an indication of where in the text the page divisions fall), but not the "foliation".


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 25, 2004 08:59 AM