Thursday, October 22, 2009


I recently discovered the 17th-century English writer and churchman Thomas Fuller (here are some of his witticisms and aphorisms).

The first collection of his sermons was published in 1640 under the title Joseph's Party-Coloured Coat, which I am now reading. In the Wikipedia article (from the EB 1911), the title was given as Joseph's Partly-Coloured Coat. I corrected it there as a "minor change", giving as reason "corrected partly-coloured to party-coloured in title of book by Fuller". Of course before doing this I had checked the title in an edition scanned into Google.

One Adam Bishop (user page) has now reverted my correction. I wonder why? Was it to restore the mistake from the original EB article (assuming it was there)? Was it because his intuitions about the correctness of a bit of old-timey English prevailed over knowledge of it?

An unread speaker of contemporary English might well think: "party-coloured doesn't make sense, a party doesn't have a colour, it must be 'partly-coloured'". This would reveal not only ignorance of the word parti-coloured (in today's spelling), but also of the biblical story of Joseph's coat, which in the KJV is a "coat of many colours". "Partly coloured" doesn't even make much sense, apart from being wrong in the context of Joseph's coat. If anything, the coat was "completely coloured". That would be true even if it had been of only one colour.

I added an external link to Joseph's Party-Coloured Coat in the Wikipedia article, undid Bishop's reversion, and am waiting for the next episode. Is it often this hard to correct such a simple mistake in a Wikipedia article, against the opposition of people who work by intuition? All Bishop would have had to do was to check a library, or find a scanned edition of the book, as I did. If he wasn't working by intuition, what was he working by?

I see that "partly-coloured" has started propagating in search results, sites that apparently contain cut-and-paste sections of the Wikipedia article with the typo. Compare the results of searching for "Thomas Fuller" and "partly-coloured", with those of searching for "Thomas Fuller" and "party-coloured".

One of the biggest problems with the Wikipedia approach is that mistakes spread before they can be corrected, if they ever are corrected.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Exquisite detail

Sometimes I encounter single words that bind an exquisite detail. Decades ago, I read this in a dictionary:
fremitus: a sensation felt by a hand placed on a part of the body (as the chest) that vibrates during speech
A fremitus is not what is felt by the person speaking, in his own chest and by it, but by a hand (his own or someone else's) placed on his chest. In what situation would the need for such a word arise? I think I read it originally in a medical dictionary. Could an absence of fremitus when someone is speaking be a symptom of some malfunction? Or is fremitus just a reality-detail with a name?

The last sentence of Bacon's essay Of Studies is: "So every defect of the mind, may have a special receipt". I wondered whether "nostrum" had the same connotations as "receipt" in the 16th century, and what the sense was of nostrum = "our". So I looked it up in the OED:
nostrum: A medicine, or medical application, prepared by the person recommending it; esp. a quack remedy, a patent medicine
The exquisite detail is "prepared by the person recommending it", which explains the "our".