The joys of indexing

LB joke

In the sidebar I’ve just added a handy tag for Chinese jokes, that transpires to comprise a majority of my posts—hours of harmless fun for all the family.

I can’t yet work out how to introduce sub-headings into such tags, but here’s a simple list of how they might look for this one, with just a few instances. Many would deserve cross-references…


Note also Cultural Revolution jokes.

* * *

Call me a nerd [You’re a nerd—Ed.], but I’ve always loved indexing. After graduating—just as orchestras were mysteriously beginning to consider paying me to play the violin—I indexed books for Cambridge UP (notably for the Tang volumes of The Cambridge history of China), relishing the task of compiling hand-written index-cards (imagine that). Since I began writing my own books, I’ve always enjoyed indexing them too—it’s so good if authors can compile their own indexes, as detailed knowledge of your text can produce a much more instructive result, highlighting themes that may not always reveal themselves through a simple search for particular words. And they can give a real flavour of the subject. Again we return to taxonomy.

Pedantry and frivolity can go hand in hand. With sub-editors either indulgent or distracted, I’ve generally managed to sneak in a few entertaining entries. Alphabetical order can further create random and stimulating associations. I made an early foray in my index for Folk music of China:

temples (Fujian, Hebei, Shanxi; see also temple music)
Temple, Shirley

A couple of nice sequences in Plucking the winds:

Beethoven: author despairingly sings gongche mnemonics to
birth-control policy
blind musicians

Valerio, Father
Verona, missionary base
viola jokes
Vivaldi, disparaged

In Ritual and music of north China:

coal mining
commune system
concert performances
contests, official
Cui Jian
cultural authorities
Cultural Revolution

In Daoist priests of the Li family I like the sequences

educated youth


vocal liturgy

One entry that I inexplicably omitted to include is

  • Scunthorpe, Messiah in; compares poorly with Daoist gig in Venice, 337

For more on that story, see here.

Nicolas Slonimsky’s brilliant Lexicon of musical invective (a genuinely instructive caveat to our contingent aesthetic judgments) has a hilarious index (“Invecticon”)—here’s a sample:

And Slonimsky‘s life deserves to be celebrated too.

While we’re on the subject of research (um) tools, the glossaries of the Barry Mackenzie cartoon books are masterpieces of indiscreet linguistic erudition:


The indexer Paula Clarke Bain has a fine series of homages to the comedy book index. I too am very keen on the indexes for Alan Partridge books (here and here), with gems like


physical strength 231
aeronautic capability 232

Corsodyl Mouthwash, brand ambassadorship of 24
(buy Corsodyl Mouthwash, the best mouthwash there is)

Countryfile, that woman who sued 10



backward unachievers of 24
“development” in 15–16 […]
sex in 2n
starvation in 228

Update: for National Indexing Day 2020 Ms Bain has written a fine survey of some of the best and funniest indexes.

I keep trying to encourage Chinese publishers to include indexes—they would make a really valuable resource.

I compiled a wacky index to Nicolas Robertson’s inspired series of Anagram tales. In similar vein, see here; and for some unlikely place-names to find on a blog about Daoist ritual, here. For the imaginary index as an art form, see here.

While I’m here, it’s great to be able to cross-reference and give links online (as you can see in this very post)—which in a work published on paper would have to be a tedious footnote or a laborious URL. Not to mention publishing colour photos and maps. AND what’s more, unlike traditional publishing, we can continue editing them. Hooray for modern life!

Anyway, enjoy all the Chinese jokes.

19 thoughts on “The joys of indexing

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