Usually, words are either common enough to be used casually, expecting the reader to understand them, or they’re rare enough that authors feel the need to explain them. I don’t recall seeing another word like catchmark, which is exceedingly rare—so rare that it’s not in any dictionary I can find, not even the OED—but is used (on those rare occasions when it is used) with the nonchalance of someone using a well-known locution, so that it is not clear to the uninitiated reader what it actually means. Note that although it has something to do with manuscripts, it is not catchword, a familiar term for a word placed at the foot of a handwritten or printed page that anticipates the first word of the following page. Some representative uses culled from Google Books: “Here a catchmark in the MS.,” “the scribe has marked some of the pages in his prebound blank European book with Armenian catchmarks,” “Unusually, there is no catch-mark for the number within the text,” “Gatherings 6 through 9 have medieval catchmarks.” I cannot find any glossary of terms that has “Catchmark: a [whatever it is].” Naturally, I would appreciate hearing from anyone who is in possession of this bit of strangely esoteric knowledge.
Update. This post at Ante-Bath Notes has images of what would certainly appear to be catchmarks; if so, they are sort of medieval footnote indicators, except pointing to marginal notes. Many thanks, Catanea/catannea!


  1. Conspiracy theory: it’s a corruption of the French word cauchemar, or “nightmare.” A centuries-old running gag among bookbinders meant to confuse and terrify outsiders.

  2. A more mundane suggestion: this page suggests the term can be used for marks which assist with the proper folding of sheets in the process of bookbinding.

  3. Another sense of the term: “a mark in the end of the log made at the boom works to make log identification easier”.

  4. Apparently it is the semi-coded designation of author, title, or subject matter at the upper right corner of a book catalog entry (the ancestor of a cataloging card and ultimately of CIP data). From The Sheaf Catalogue: A Practical Handbook On The Compilation of Manuscript Catalogues for Public and Private Libraries (scanned PDF) by James Douglas Stewart (1909), p. 31:

    85. Unless a special alphabeting number is used for arranging individual biography, the catch-number at the corner of the catalogue slips should consist simply of the mark for individual biography plus the first three letters of the biographee’s name. Thus, lives of Bacon and Shakespeare would have for catch-marks, X BAC and X SHA respectively. [Emphasis added.]

    The book appears to treat catch-mark, catch-number, and catchword as interchangeable terms, though it uses catchword 36 times to 3 uses of catch-number and only one of catch-mark. Here is the OED’s definition 4 of catchword:

    4. catchword entry n. (see quots.).

    1893 I. K. Funk et al. Standard Dict. Eng. Lang.

    1938 L. M. Harrod Librarians’ Gloss. 35 Catchword entry, entry by some striking word in a book’s title, other than the first, and likely to be remembered by an enquirer.

    1956 F. C. Avis Bookman’s Concise Dict. 54/1 Catchword Entry, an entry of the name of a book in a catalogue under its most important word, as Pickwick Papers.

    It may be that catch-mark is also interchangeable with catchword in sense 1 (the one you mention) as well; this ad for the Asarab a’Amarot of Caleb Ben Elijah Afendopolo seems to use it in that sense. The other OED senses are 2a (dictionary headword), 2b (rhyming word in verse), 2c (cue word in acting scripts), and 3 (single-word catchphrase).

  5. A correspondent points out this Google Books hit from 1883 (“annotating it or making catch-marks throughout”), which makes better sense in the context of MSS than most of the definitions cited above, though it only gives a vague idea of the meaning (is it just a rare synonym of “annotation”?).

  6. A correspondent? Massachusetts? Google Books? MMcM?

  7. Your first example from Google Books seems self explanatory:“Here a catchmark in the MS. continues points to a note in the outer margin, by another hand
    This use looks like it is a mark used in a way we would use the numerals, letters, symbols etc. to indicate endnotes or footnotes.

  8. “A correspondent?”

  9. John Emerson says

    It’s a surprisingly common surname, says the Google.

  10. All right, all right, it was Conrad!
    And yes, I would not have guessed there were so many people named Catchmark. It doesn’t help with the investigation, and I wish they’d all change their name to Smith.

  11. Shall we tell them the whole truth, LH? You know, how I’ve been writing this blog for years now? I’ve had so much free time since quitting the Varieties.

  12. Catchword, eh. I never knew the term for that species of typographical John the Baptist. Thanks, Hat!
    Speaking of old printing conventions, by the way, one that I’d like to see revived is the repeated opening quote mark at the beginning of every printed line of a quoted text. This seems to have outlived the catchword (into the nineteenth century at least), but has regrettably died out, despite its visual helpfulness.

  13. narrowmargin says

    I always thought a catchmark was simply a check mark or an exclamation point or an arrow written in the margin so that the reader may thereby easily find again some sentence or paragraph that he or she wanted to revisit for one reason or another.

  14. narrowmargin says

    Perhaps because either the first reading “caught” your eye/mind, or your eye will be “caught” by the mark(s) as you flip through the pages?

  15. By the way, Hat, you certainly have some agreeable opinions and views. I don’t know if anyone’s ever told you that.

  16. Thanks For This Blog, was added to my catchmarks.

  17. I just book marked your blog on Digg
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    As I agree with most of what you’re saying
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    You certainly have some agreeable opinions
    And views. Your blog provides a fresh
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    You certainly deserve a round
    Of applause
    For your post and more specifically,
    Your blog in general.


  18. Dear Mr. Hat,
    I’m sorry it took me so long.
    I couldn’t figure out how to put images here, so I put them here:
    Will your blog allow this? Are they of interest?
    Or should I follow Mr Sprague’s lead and…just praise you in many places?
    respectfully submitted…

  19. Well found indeed, and I’ve added an update to the post to link to yours!

  20. Stephanie Jeanette Bradley says

    Trademark:a company’s Logo::Catchmark:Unwritten Bsns Culture

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