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The Reference Shelf From Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia

Jack Lynch

Pliny the Elder hated wasting time - even when he was in his bath he would have someone reading to him. On the move, a travelling secretary would read to him, or take down letters. Chided his nephew for walking around Rome; if he'd taken a sedan chair, he could have been read to en route.

Plagiarism is a modern concept. Medieval writers were expected to copy their sources as closely as possible. Painters and sculptors learned by copying the masters.

Ortelius seems to have been the first to notice how the continents seemed to interlock, publishing the idea in his Thesaurus geographicus in 1596. This was also the first atlas - collection of maps - to cover the whole world.

Too many people think that dictionaries are infallible authorities. Think that every word has a correct meaning, and that dictionaries are the supreme authorities of meaning and usage.

Writer Ammon Shea said he'd always wondered why people felt compelled to write in with corrections to dictionaries, until he started to read the OED "and realised what a powerful I have, when I find a mistake in the dictionary, to share it with someone. When I find a simple typo, I get a feeling of minor triumph. When I find something more substantial, such as a misspelled word, I begin to think I should set about applying for a professorship somewhere."

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In France, the Academy tries to impose usages and spelling by fiat. In England, dictionary writers see their job more as recording how words are used, recognizing the organic way in which language borrows and evolves.

Dictionaries inevitably include ghost words - words which were never words but appeared bc of misprints or mistakes by printers or typesetters. Webster had a word 'dord' as a synonym for density bc someone mistakenly read 'D or d' as a word. But dictionaries also insert their own creations to catch out plagiarists, or in some cases, just as a joke. Collins had a 'hink', which they defined as 'to think hopefully or unrealistically about something.' The term 'mountweasel' is used to describe these fake trap entries. Mapmakers do the same thing - they will include a 'trap street'. (The thing is, there's no law stopping anyone lifting facts, even if they aren't true, as long as they aren't copied verbatim.)

When Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, went to S Africa in 2007, he created a short entry for a butchery/restaurant he visited. A 19 yo administrator deleted the entry 20 minutes later on the grounds that it broke the W rule of having no importance or significance. This touched of a row within W between the 'inclusionists' who were willing to tolerate any article, and 'deletionists' who wanted to stop unprocessed stuff appearing. Wales himself was taken aback at the fight, and suggested that "people should get a new hobby."

Kama Sutra - although known as a sex book, only a small part of it deals with sex. It's really a book about virtuous living, but a happy and virtuous life does include sexual pleasure. Other books on the topic are what Rousseau called 'Livre lire d'une seule main': a book to be read with one hand. A 1761 directory of London prostitutes described one who "will grasp the pointed weapon with genuine female fortitude".

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An early East India Co boss 'went native' to the extent of marrying 13 Indian wives. Long list of Indian words into English. Novel Indian things - chutney, curry, yoga, sari. Bungalow, cashmere, jungle, pariah, polo, pundit, typhoon, verandah. Bangle, dinghy, loot, thug, shampoo.

A very small number of authors who's names have become synonymous with their creations - Hoyle, Wisden, Roget and Webster.

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