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The Scrivener: Hairy Men And Other Surprises

"In March 2012, Encyclopædia Britannica announced that its 32-voume printed version would cease publication. The first edition, published 1768–1771, comprised three hefty volumes with a total of 2,700 pages,'' writes columnist Brian Barratt, proceeding to present some astonishing facts from the first edition.

Here are just a few of the entries, with brief comments.

'COFFEA, THE COFFEE-TREE, in botany, a genus of the pentandria monogynia class. The corolla is hypocrateriform; the stamina are above the tube; the berry is below the flower, and contains two seeds, which are arillated. The species are two, viz. the arabica, a native of Arabia and Æthiopia; and the occidental, a native of America. The berries of both species have much of the same qualities. This fruit is used rather as food than as a medicine. The medical effects expected from it are, to assist digestion, promote the natural secretions, and to prevent or remove a disposition to sleep.'

The emphasis changes significantly in the opening line of the present-day entry: 'Beverage brewed from the roasted and ground seeds of the tropical evergreen coffee plant of African origin. It is consumed either hot or cold by about one-third of the people in the world, in amounts larger than those of any other drink.'

Now for some surprises:

'HOMO, MAN, is ranked by Linnæus under the order of primates, and characterised by having four parallel foreteeth both in the upper and lower jaw, and two mammæ on the breast. The species, according to this author, are two, viz. the homo sapiens, and the homo troglodytes. He subdivides the homo sapiens into five varieties, viz. the American, the European, the Asiatic, the African, and what he calls the monstrous. The troglodytes, or orang outang, is a native of Athiopia, Java and Amboina. His body is white; he walks erect; and is about one half human size. He generally lives about 25 years. He conceals himself in caves during the day, and searches for his prey at night. He is said to be exceedingly sagacious, but is not endowed with the faculty of speech.'

There are no separate entries for orang-outan, chimpanzee or gorilla. At the time, Ethiopia was the name given to almost the whole of central Africa around the equator. The troglodytes in Athiopia (Ethiopia) could have been gorillas or chimpanzees. In scientific terms, chimpanzees are now known as Pan troglodytes but gorillas are known as Gorilla gorilla. They were first identified and named in the 1840s as Troglodytes gorilla, meaning 'the hairy man who lives in a cave'. The general meaning of troglodyte is someone who lives in a cave but it is interesting to note that the scientific term for wrens is Troglodytidae, perhaps because they tend to nest in cavities and sheltered places.

The compilers of the first edition did not simply record facts. They also expressed opinions:

'METAPHYSICS: PSYCHOLOGY ...consists in the knowledge of the soul in general, and of the soul of man in particular; concerning which, the most profound, the most subtle and abstract researches have been made, that the human reason is capable of producing; and concerning the substance of which, in spite of all these efforts, it is yet extremely difficult to assert any thing that is rational, and still less any thing that is positive and well supported.'

Psychology as we know it had not developed at the time, and the writer is obviously unimpressed by it. It did not develop into a more systematic system, or science, until about 100 years later.

'NON-NATURALS, in medicine, so called because by their abuse they become the causes of diseases. Physicians have divided non-naturals into six classes, viz. the air, meats and drinks, sleep and watching, motion and rest, the passions of the mind, the retentions and excretions.'

In modern terms, we can read this as a reminder to partake of clean air, healthy diet, plenty of sleep, appropriate exercise, and calmness of mind. The last category requires us to pay attention to problems such as constipation and diarrhoea, and to sexual functions. All that is still pretty good advice in the 21st century.

'OVATION, in the Roman antiquity, a lesser triumph, allowed to commanders for victories won without the effusion of much blood; or for defeating a mean and inconsiderate enemy. The show generally began at the Albanian mountain, whence the general with his retinue made his entry into the city on foot, with many flutes or pipes sounding in concert as he passed along, and wearing a garland of myrtle as a token of peace. The term ovation, according to Servius, is derived from ovis, sheep, because on this occasion the conqueror sacrificed a sheep, as in triumph he sacrificed a bull.'

Well, that sounds a lot more exciting than our present-day 'standing ovation' which sometimes appears to be a welcome excuse for an audience to stand up and adjust their uncomfortably creased undies after being obliged to remain seated for far too long.



Replica of the First Edition of Encyclopædia Britannica reissued by Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, Illinois, 1979.

Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2012.

Approx. 840 words incl. source notes.

No copyright line as it would not be appropriate.


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