for some humble pie.
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.
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 . . .
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.
Goop, whom I consulted on this, has confirmed the facts, adding
has some interesting extra information on the two words.
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
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.
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.
Goop adds, that according to the OED, the surname (which it has as
al-Khowarazmi) means “the native of Khwarazm (Khiva)”.
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
took the regular courses, reeling and writhing.
as Katisha correctly points out, the line should have been
took the regular courses, reeling, writhing and fainting in coils.
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
in question was the P.G. Wodehouse quote
things so speedily modify an uncle's love as a nephew's air gun bullet in
the fleshy part of the leg.
inexcusable fact is that that selfsame line had already appeared in Issue
12. Anyone would think I had a special affection for PGW!
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.
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:
one of those plays in which all the actors unfortunately enunciated very
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.
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.
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
And . . .
wait for it . . . one of his best similes ever:
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