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 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?

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Chris Aldrich

I'm a biomedical and electrical engineer with interests in information theory, complexity, evolution, genetics, signal processing, IndieWeb, theoretical mathematics, and big history. I'm also a talent manager-producer-publisher in the entertainment industry with expertise in representation, distribution, finance, production, content delivery, and new media.

5 thoughts on “First Use of Zettelkasten in an English Language Setting?”

  1. JSTOR has at least a dozen articles/journal entries in English referencing “zettelkasten” (mostly disparagingly). I searched a while back, and the earliest I found then was from 1967. But, there were others from the 70s, 80s, 90s, etc.

  2. This is the sort of search that AI would make a lot easier. Right now searching for the first use of a term in English isn’t the sort of thing Google does well.

    It’s worth noting that ‘Zettel’, a collection of Wittgenstein’s remarks, was published in 1967 on English. See The title doesn’t use the full word ‘Zettelkasten’ but that’s the concept.

    Just for fun I did a bit more searching and found which was created no earlier than July 22, 2000 (based on it being authored for Mozilla 4.74 but probably not much later. Individual entries are dated and there are many prior to 2007, eg.

  3. Chris, nice archeological work :). Kuehn’s text, which I had never read, is one the best descriptions of Zettelkasten to date. I particularly liked this sentence describing the structure of a Zettelkasten: “It is a network; it is not “arboretic.” Folks: Zettelkasten is a network and not a tree! Do not forget it!

  4. I just listened to an interview with Andrea Wulf about her book on Alexander von Humboldt, “The Invention of Nature”.
    She described Humboldt’s notebooks and I thought it sounded so “zettlekasten” and Luhmann-like. He was writing in the 1850s, so maybe there’s something in the “zeitgeist”?

    Here’s a quote from the transcript:
    “And then you have this extraordinary system of filing, which might sound boring, but bear with me. So his filing system, I think it’s basically a computer. It’s so clever. So here is, and then amazingly kept it like this. So in the archives in Berlin, you get out these boxes. He called them boxes box eight box, whatever box nine, box nine B.

    And in that box, you have open envelopes which have also titles, so say a box is called Slavery. Then you have in that box, an envelope that is called Sugar because of course sugar has to do with slavery. Now in that envelope, but sugar, he will have something about the botany of the plants. He will have something about work conditions, all these kinds of different things. So he would get a letter from someone who worked at a slave plantation in the West Indies with botanical information.

    So that goes into the envelope, sugar, botany or something like that. And then he would have someone write him something about the health effect it had on slaves or something. And then he has this kind of box slavery, and then he starts writing his books. And so he can just take out this box and he can use it, but he can file it like a page from a book. He has never problems with tearing our pages from books, put that in a newspaper articular letter, but then he does writing another essay or another book.

    And suddenly it is about the botany of I’m making this up now, the botany of the west Indies. So you can just take the envelope out of the slavery box and he can put it into the box botany of the West Indies. So he has this vast archive of information, but he can resort it and refile it, according to the project he’s working on which is keywording basically in an analog way, which I think is so clever, which allows him to make these connections, which I think other people can’t do because they have a different filing system.”

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