Corrigenda
[ Issue 16 ]

Corrigenda are a particular interest of Emily Bronto

Bikwil can be guaranteed to shout about Corrigenda

Corrigenda

Sins of commission and sins of omission — we've had our share.  Tony Rogers here apologises for some recent errors in Bikwil, and thanks those readers who pointed them out.

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Corrigenda — Tony Rogers

Copyright


Time for some humble pie.

Several of our readers have an interest in matters both scientific and linguistic. One of these on-the-ball scholars — jeneric by name — has been kind enough to draw my attention to a factual error in my Up-front Popularisers piece on Lancelot Hogben’s Mathematics for the Million in Issue 15 (September 1999). The error was mine, not Hogben’s, I should add, and proves yet again that one should always re-check one’s work — four times at least.

What I had written so nonchalantly was this:

. . . did you know that the word “algebra” is derived from the name of an ancient Arab mathematician? He was Abu Al Khwarizmi, who worked in Baghdad in the 8th century . . .

As jeneric points out, the word derived from the mathematician’s name should have been “algorithm”, not “algebra”. Referring to a statement in Roger Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind (Chapter 2), a well regarded book from 1989 on the human mind and computers, jeneric explains as follows:

. . . it was Abu Ja’far Mohammed ibn Musa al-Khodrizm who wrote in 825 AD the influential text book “Kitab al-jabr wa’l-muqabala”, from which the two words algorithm (al-Khowdrizm) and algebra (al-jabr) derived.

Harlish Goop, whom I consulted on this, has confirmed the facts, adding

OED2 has some interesting extra information on the two words.

Take algebra, for instance. The original meaning in Arabic (al-jabr) was the reuniting of broken parts, including the setting of fractured bones. The word passed into Western languages in the 13th century, and maintained the surgical meaning along with the mathematical until well into the 17th century.

As for algorithm, this, says the OED, while certainly derived from the surname of Abu Ja’far Mohammed Ben Musa, is actually a form in English of the old word algorism, “which passed through many pseudo-etymological perversions”, and which means the Arabic decimal system of numeration.

Regarding the spelling of the man’s name, jeneric aptly says

. . . it’s probably been translated from Farsi to Arabic to Latin to English and a “correct” spelling would be anybody’s guess.

Harlish Goop adds, that according to the OED, the surname (which it has as al-Khowarazmi) means “the native of Khwarazm (Khiva)”.

And if the above transgression wasn’t enough, Lewis Carroll nonsense aficionado Katisha has contacted Bikwil regarding an incomplete QQQ in Issue 13 (May 1999). We had the quote in question as

I only took the regular courses, reeling and writhing.

But as Katisha correctly points out, the line should have been

I only took the regular courses, reeling, writhing and fainting in coils.

Sorry, sorry, sorry.

Worse still, that unlucky page of quotes had second stupid error in it. How many of you spotted it, but were too polite to draw it to my mortified attention?

The one in question was the P.G. Wodehouse quote

Few things so speedily modify an uncle's love as a nephew's air gun bullet in the fleshy part of the leg.

The inexcusable fact is that that selfsame line had already appeared in Issue 12. Anyone would think I had a special affection for PGW!

True enough, but much to my embarrassment I have to confess the real reason: nothing more than the fact that I copied the wrong quote from my master QQQ list, and once more failed to check my work sufficiently carefully.

The shame of it all is that the missing quote I had prepared for Issue 13 was this fine witticism from Robert Benchley, colleague and friend of the equally scathing theatre critic Dorothy Parker:

It was one of those plays in which all the actors unfortunately enunciated very clearly.

Perversity now being one of the predictable catchcries of the QQQ page, my atonement for using a quote twice is to give you three extra doses, not of Benchley, but of Wodehouse.

First:

Unlike the male codfish, which, suddenly finding itself the parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all, the British aristocracy is apt to look with a somewhat jaundiced eye on its younger sons.

Second:

Jeeves has a way of suddenly materialising at one's side like one of those Indian blokes who shoot their astral bodies to and fro, going into thin air in Rangoon and re-assembling the parts in Calcutta. I think it's done with mirrors.

And . . . wait for it . . . one of his best similes ever:

He looked haggard and careworn, like a Borgia who has suddenly remembered that he had forgotten to shove cyanide in the consommé, and the dinner gong due any moment.

— TR

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