Kevin Jackson

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You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf from Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia

By Jack Lynch

Bloomsbury 453pp £25 order from our bookshop

What is the origin of the word ‘algorithm’? It is a muffled echo of the last part of the name Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, an Islamic polymath of the ninth century who also gave us the word al-jabr, which became ‘algebra’. Who invented the decimal point? John Napier, a Scottish laird, who also discovered the immensely useful properties of logarithms. Who first postulated the existence of an Indo-European language group? William Jones, in 1786. Who was the first famous English author to refer to an ‘almanac’? Chaucer; the word is notionally derived from the Arabic al-manakh, but manakh has never been found in Arabic lexicons. Which novels make mention of the semi-pornographic work Aristotle’s Master-Piece (1684)? Sir Walter Scott’s Woodstock and Joyce’s Ulysses. What is a ‘mountweazel’? A prank entry in a work of reference, so called because of a spoof entry in the New Columbia Encyclopedia about the non-existent American fountain designer Lillian Virginia Mountweazel.

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