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Home > Business > Special

It's weird, it's wonderful, it's Wiki!

Devangshu Datta in New Delhi | January 07, 2006

"It is common for the police to refer to a 'blunt instrument' when they cannot think of the specific type of club used to bash someone's head in. The origin of the term lies with Sir William Instrument, who was descended from a long line of instrument-makers. He became Sir William Blunt-Instrument when bestowed with the lordship of a desolate Welsh tor named Blunt (after the shape of the tor)."

Sooner or later, the factoid quoted above will feature in a quiz conducted by an incautious quizmaster. The name and etymology are preposterous but that doesn't make it untrue.

The plumber Thomas Crapper (1836-1910) held many patents related to human waste disposal, including key patents for the inventions of the floating ball-cock, the siphon flush, and the manhole cover.

Antique flush toilets and manhole covers inscribed with 'Thos. Crapper & Co. Ltd (London)' are tourist attractions in London.

Crapper didn't hold a patent on ludicrous names. William Smellie (1740-1795) was another man with an equally funny name, who achieved fame in an entirely different sphere of life.

Smellie was the founder-editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, famous both for his great scholarship and his epic drinking.

He conceptualised the cross-referencing of 'knowledgeable digests of distinct treatises on the arts and sciences' that is standard operating procedure for modern encyclopaedias.

Sir William Blunt-Instrument never existed. That entry is from the 'Bad Jokes and other Deleted Nonsense' section of Wikipedia (

This bit of the free online encyclopaedia consists of hoax entries, considered funny enough to be archived.

The BJAODN incorporates many other gems such as 'The Feminist Movement is a movement of women. Sometimes feminists move forwards, sometimes they move backwards and sometimes they move sideways with a snaky wriggle of the hips.'

If Smellie had seen the morphing of his concept a la Wiki, he would have taken a firm grip on a dram of single malt and crawled back into his grave.

The EB hires scholars (including Nobel laureates) to create factually correct, authoritative entries. It has gone digital. The current editions contain over 85,000 entries. In most places, an EB reference is accepted without further argument.

The Wikipedia was established less than five years ago by a man called Jimbo Wales. It has over 900,000 entries (excluding BJAODN). The information contained always needs to be cross-checked against alternative sources.

However, it does offer well over ten times as much as the EB (over 50 languages) and thus, makes a great starting point for research.

Quite often, a cross-check on Wiki entries establishes that the weird and wonderful edit-model has worked to create a factually correct entry with useful information.

The Wiki (a Hawaiian word for "quick") model leverages the democratisation of knowledge. Anybody can create a new Wiki entry or edit, add, delete, or vandalise existing entries.

No original research is allowed -- primary sources should be cited. There should be a neutral point of view -- cited opinions must be drawn from public sources.

Wiki assumes enough interested parties with differing sets of opinion will edit any given subject to ensure a balanced, factual entry is eventually achieved.

There is a complex process of administration, arbitration and dispute resolution to help this along. Persistent vandals and ranters are blocked. All previous edits (including any vandalism) are archived and accessible.

The hilarity occurs while a controversial entry is work-in-progress. People holding one opinion will express it and this will lead to 'revert-wars' as people holding contrary opinions reverts the edits of the first set.

The revert wars on 'Orhan Pamuk' and the 'Armenian genocide' were absolutely fascinating, for example.

You can learn Turkish abuse by the bucketful by trawling through the archives. Another currently cutting-edge dispute relates to 'numerals'.

Should it be 'Arabic numerals' or 'Hindu Numerals' or 'Hindu-Arabic Numerals'? If you care and you can cite appropriate references, go and Wiki it!

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