Kevin Jackson

Urra=hubbulu

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

By

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.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • Why did the 'bold and determined' Empress Matilda never manage to become Queen regnant? Peter Marshall reviews a n… ,
    • From the Archive: Martyn Bedford on Ian McEwan's 'Atonement' ,
    • In 'Silenced Voices' reports the ongoing story of the human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, who has been… ,
    • The mystery of Jack the Ripper's identity has long been agonised over. But what do we know about his victims?… ,
    • A piece of Literary Review history from way back in 1983: John Haffenden talks to the great Iris Murdoch. ,
    • Britain’s only travelling lit fest, the Garden Museum Literary Festival is heading to Houghton Hall, Norfolk, for a… ,
    • 'The 19th-century German sage is not my idea of a pleasant travel companion' goes hiking with Friedr… ,