Zettelkasten Forum

First Use of Zettelkasten in an English Language Setting?

The idea of having and maintaining a Zettelkasten has become increasingly popular since the »Zettelkästen. Maschinen der Phantasie« exhibition at Marbach in March 2013 and the appearance of the website zettelkasten.de in late 2013 and has grown significantly with the Cambrian explosion of a variety of digital note taking tools since 2018.

But here’s a fun little historical linguistic puzzle:

What was the first use of the word Zettelkasten in a predominantly English language setting?

In my own notes/research the first occurrence I’ve been able to identify in an English language setting is on Manfred Kuehn’s blog in Taking note: Luhmann’s Zettelkasten on 2007-12-16. He’d just started his blog earlier that month.

Has anyone seen an earlier usage? Can you find one? Can you beat this December 2007 date or something close by a different author?

Google’s nGram Viewer doesn’t indicate any instances of it from 1800-2019 in its English search, though does provide a graph for German with peaks in the 1850s, 1892 (just after Ernst Bernheim’s Lehrbuch der Historischen Methode in 1889), 1912, 1925, and again in 1991.

Twitter search from 2006-2007 finds nothing and there are only two results in German both mentioning Luhmann.

My best guess for earlier versions of the appearance zettelkasten in English might stem from the work/publications of S. D. Goitein or Gotthard Deutsch, but I’ve yet to see anything there. 

For those who speak German, what might you posit as a motivating source for the rise of the word in the 1850s or any of the other later peaks?

(Originally published on https://boffosocko.com/2023/03/11/first-use-of-zettelkasten-in-an-english-language-setting/ with aggregated commentary.)

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  • Thanks for sharing. The publication in 1847 seems to be a collection of Zettelkasten created by Jean Paul in an earlier time. The principle he used was developed in the 1700s over the course of time.

    my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

  • As @taurusnoises noted in a comment on @chrisaldrich's original blog post, there are some mentions of the word "Zettelkasten" in the English-language scholarly record in the second half of the 20th century.

    I agree with @chrisaldrich that Manfred Kuehn's blog Taking Note Now was a major source of Zettelkasten-related discourse in English in the 21st century. A couple of examples of Kuehn's influence not already mentioned:

    Dan Sheffler's mid-2014 series of blog posts on his own note-taking system (originally at dansheffler.com) links to Kuehn's blog as inspiration (Dan was also reading zettelkasten.de & communicating with the proprietors), and a year later Dan wrote:

    "A few years back I took a Saturday and read every single post in the archives of the excellent Taking Note blog. The author of this blog is partial to the system created by sociologist Niklas Luhmann which you can read about in detail in this post."

    "A few years back" could mean prior to 2013. Certainly people were reading and learning from Kuehn's blog before 2013; an example is Andreas Schmidt writing in February 2010:

    "The vanguard of the more interesting category of individual thinking supporting software probably was asksam, created in the mid-late eighties and in a slow decline since late nineties, a DOS- and then Windows-based full-text database, with which you could easily create a digital version of Niklas Luhmann’s famous Zettelkasten (youtube video, in German though) or any other kind of text-based databases."

  • @chrisaldrich: Perhaps it is too obvious to mention, but at the end of Kuehn's blog post "Luhmann's Zettelkasten" that you mentioned above, he references his article on the ConnectedText website, "Some Idiosyncratic Reflections on Note-Taking in General and ConnectedText in Particular", which also discusses Luhmann's Zettelkasten, so that essay on the ConnectedText website preceded the blog post.

    I mentioned in a previous discussion that the earliest version of the ConnectedText essay in the Internet Archive is from 2007-10-30, and a version from 2007-12-26 adds criticism of Luhmann that was missing from the earlier version. By comparing archived versions of the ConnectedText website articles list from 2007-09-15 and 2007-10-22, you can see that Kuehn's article was added between those dates, which is more confirmation that it's earlier than the blog post. The ConnectedText essay is also important for giving a clear history of Kuehn's note-taking practice.

    What I find interesting is that even though Kuehn used index cards "between 1974 and 1985", he confesses, "the change from the analog to the digital ways of recording notes, thoughts, and ideas [...] led at first to a kind of disorientation and many false steps. I was searching for a new 'paradigm' of keeping my research notes, but all I have from this time are Word files of papers I wrote, notes, insofar as they exist at all, exist only on paper." Personally I find his description very familiar, since I was in a similar position in the 1990s, as I recently noted in another discussion, constrained by the readily available software at the time. Kuehn reported, "It was my discovery of wiki technology some time in 2002 that ended this undirected search and constituted the other fundamental change in the way I deal with information", and that was also the decade that I came to a more granular knowledge-base model through wiki-like software, although I discovered it a few years later than Kuehn. What I find interesting in Kuehn's account is the intersection of his personal search and experimentation, not unlike my own, with a larger shared history of information technology.

  • @chrisaldrich: I remembered that much of the discourse about personal knowledge bases that I was reading in the 2000s happened in software forums, so it occurred to me to check a couple of the software forums from that time that are still active online (though they have since switched to the Discourse platform, so the the original URLs are dead), and there are indeed some earlier uses of the term "Zettelkasten" in English in those forums.

    From the DevonTHINK forum:

    From the Scrivener forum:

    And speaking of Daniel Luedecke's Zettelkasten software, his German-language website is in the Internet Archive back to 2004, and the first English-language version of it that I could quickly find was 2011-08-13.

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