Books Do Furnish A Mind, Part IV

by Ibn Warraq (July 2015)

The Reader by Jean-Honoré Fragonard

Do I boast of my omnivorousness of reading, even apart from the romances? Certainly no! never, except in joke. It’s against my theories and ratiocinations, which take upon themselves to assert that we all generally err by reading too much, and out of proportion to what we think. I should be wiser, I am persuaded, if I had not read half as much—should have had stronger and better exercised faculties, and should stand higher in my own appreciation. The fact is, that the ne plus ultra of intellectual indolence is this reading of books. It comes next to what the Americans call ‘whittling.’
                                        — Elizabeth Barrett Browning (in a letter to R.H. Horne), 1843.

The answer to the skeptic’s question above [“Have you read them all?”] is, of course, no, I have not read every single book I own cover to cover. First, many of my books are works of reference, such as language dictionaries (Liddell and Scott’s Greek LexiconA Practical Sanskrit Dictionary, John T. Platt’s A Dictionary of Urdu, Classical Hindi and EnglishGujarati-English Dictionary, Hans Wehr’s Dictionary of Modern Written ArabicDictionnaire Arabe-Français, an edition published in Cairo in 1875- a gift from, and purchased, at my request, in Cairo by my friend Austin Dacey; R. Dozy’s Supplement aux Dictionnaires Arabes, abysmally bound and republished by Librairie du Liban, Beyrouth in 1981; Edward William Lane’s An Arabic-English Lexicon, in eight volumes, equally abysmally bound and produced by the same publisher, Librairie du Liban in 1968; The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, several English dictionaries, including the two-volume set of “The Compact Edition of The Oxford English Dictionary [O.E.D.], Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically (in slipcase with reading glass) (v. 1-20)”. (I also have the complete Oxford English Dictionary on my computer, but, of that, anon.)

Many of the language dictionaries have their respective grammars. The most voluminous by far is M.S. Howell’s A Grammar of the Classical Arabic Language. Translated and Compiled from the Works of the Most Approved Native or Naturalized Authorities, initially published as fasciculi over a period of thirty one years, between 1860 and 1891. The final work comes to seven volumes amounting to about 4000 pages. Oxford educated Morimer Sloper Howell [1841-1925] served  as magistrate in the administrative region of the North-Western Provinces of British India from October 1862 to April 1896. Significantly, Howell dedicated his work to the Orientalist scholar, and biographer of Muhammad, Sir William Muir, D.C.L., L.L.D., K.C.S.I., who was Lieutenant-Governor of the North-West Provinces of India from 1868 to 1876. It seems there are only three surviving copies of the original work, one each in the British Library (London), Bodleian Library (Oxford), and the University of Toronto. My seven volumes are a photocopied version published by Gyan Publishing House, New Delhi, India, in 2003- perfectly acceptable copy. It was sent to me by my friend Panna Lal of Haryana State, India. The work remains indispensable, by virtue of, as Conjeeveram H Rao[1] pointed out,  “its inclusion of the discussions and debates that circulated among Classical Arabic grammarians and lexicologists with regard to syntactic rules and morphology,” also because of its covering such topics as idg?m and im?la.

Not all my reference works are so serious. There is, for instance, a dictionary of sorts of current French slang, called “Merde!” by Geneviève [sic. No surname]. So if you want to know how to say “I don’t give a fuck” in French this is the book for you. There is also Howard Rheingold’s They Have a Word for It. A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words and Phrases. The Chinese word “koro” apparently means “The hysterical belief that one’s penis is shrinking.” Perhaps more useful for most of us is the German expression Drachenfutter  which is “the German custom of bringing home sweets or flowers for one’s wife when one has stayed out late.” The Sanskrit “rasa” means “the mood or sentiment that is evoked by a work of art.”

Then there is the incomparable Hobson-Jobson by Col. Henry Yule, R.E., C.B., and A.C. Burnell, Ph.D., C.I.E. which is “A Glossary of Anglo-Indian Words or Phrases and of Kindred Terms Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursive,” first published in 1886 at the height of the British Empire. An Anglo-Indian word was any word derived from any of the varied languages of South and East Asia, but anglicized by the British in the vast Eastern parts of their empire.

Sir Henry Yule [1820 – 30 December 1889] was a Scottish Orientalist with a profound knowledge of India, particularly the Khasi Hills (formerly in Assam), the Bengal, and Burma, having worked there, fought there in the two Sikh Wars, and having written several books on these regions. As the Dictionary of National Biography tells us, for Hobson-Jobson, Yule culled the terms dealt with “not only from books but from diaries and East India Company’s court letters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and copiously illustrated by a quaint medley of research collected during his miscellaneous reading, and stored till wanted in his unfailing memory.”

Arthur Coke Burnell [1840-1882], was a Sanskrit scholar who was also a member of the Indian Civil Service in Madras. He dedicated his time to acquiring Sanskrit manuscripts, 350 of which he presented to the India Library. His greatest work perhaps was Classified Index to the Sanskrit MSS in the Palace of Tanjore, issued in 1880 for the Madras government. He was a brilliant linguist with a knowledge of southern Indian vernaculars, Tibetan, Arabic, Kawi, Javanese, and Coptic, and thus was well-qualified to edit Hobson-Jobson with Yule.[2]

Limiting myself to a few examples of words from Indian languages that have migrated and have been assimilated into English we find avatar, aya, bangle, bungalow, calico, cheroot, cot, dinghy, dungaree, juggurnaut (but given as juggernaut in the O.E.D.], jungle, loot, nabob, pyjamas, tank, thug, toddy, verandah, also shawl (originally from Persian, then adopted in Urdu).

The word shampoo comes from the  Hind? ??mpo [shampo], imperative of ??mpn? to press [hence to give a massage]. Hobson-Jobson gives 1748 as the earliest use of the word quoting A Voyage to the East Indies in 1747 and 1748, though this travel memoir was only published in 1762, and accordingly the O.E.D. gives the latter date as the earliest printed account. Hobson-Jobson goes on to quote five other published examples before ending with the following bit of “orientalism” from James Forbes, Oriental Memoirs, vol.1 [1813] (I quote it to annoy the epigones of Edward Said): “There is sometimes a voluptuousness in the climate of India, a stillness in nature, an indescribable softness, which soothes the mind, and gives it up to the most delightful sensations: independent of the effects of opium, champoing [sic], and other luxuries indulged in by oriental sensualists.”

Even the Oxford English Dictionary defers, or refers to Hobson-Jobson to settle many etymological puzzles.  However I was disappointed not to find “tickety-boo” in Hobson-Jobson, convinced it was of Indian origin, but did in the O.E.D., which also explained its lack in Hobson-Jobson:

    O.E.D. : “Tickety-boo, adjective, colloquial       

                    Also ticketty-boo, tiggity-boo, etc.  

                   [Etym. obscure: perhaps from Hindi ?h?k hai all right; cf. also ticket n.1 9.]

                    In order, correct, satisfactory.     

          1939 N. Streatfeild in her novel “Luke ”p.186:

‘Things ought to have shaped right.? Couldn’t have looked more tickety-boo.’

1947 comment in the journal American Notes and Queries: ‘Lord Mountbatten, now Governor General of India, is credited in The New York Times Magazine with ‘giving currency’ to the phrase tickety-boo (or tiggerty-boo). This Royal Navy term for ‘O.K.’ is derived from the Hindustani.’ ”

Hobson-Jobson was published in 1886, and earliest use of tickety-boo that the O.E.D has found dates only to 1939. Others would derive the term from the American expression, “that’s the ticket.”[3]

My Shakespeare shelves also contain Shakespeare’s Words. A Glossary & Language Companion, by David and Ben Crystal. If you think you understand one of the Shakespeare’s plays, this dictionary will prove you otherwise. Reading the following, without this dictionary, from The Tempest could lead to serious misunderstanding: I.ii.358 [Miranda to Caliban] thy vile racehad that in’t which good natures/ Could not abide to be with. Here “race” means “inherited characteristic, natural disposition.” We tend to use “nice” indiscriminately to mean something “pleasant” or “agreeable” but in Shakespeare the word nice has nine different connotations, including the meaning “lustful, lecherous, lascivious, wanton” as in Love’s Labour Lost, III.i.78 [Mote to Armado, of his examples] these betray nice wenches. Equally deceptive is the familiar word “mere.” In Shakespeare it has the meaning of “complete, total, absolute, utter” as in As You Like It, II.vii.166: [Jacques to all] second childishness, and mere oblivion.

There are two dictionaries of Shakespeare’s sexual puns: Eric Partridge’s Shakespeare’s Bawdy, and Pauline Kiernan’s Filthy Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s Most Outrageous Sexual Puns. According to Kiernan, Iago in Othello “has the longest part in the play and almost every one of his 1,070 lines contains a sexual pun. His attitude towards sex is pornographic.” Read this dialogue and then refer to Kiernan’s gloss on it:

Iago: Here, stand behind this bulk. Straight will he come.

          Wear thy good rapier bare, and put it home.

           Quick, quick, fear nothing. I’ll be at thy elbow…

           And fix most firm they resolution.

Roderigo:  Be near at hand. I may miscarry in’t.

Iago:  Here at thy hand. Be bold, and take thy stand…

    [aside] I have rubbed this young quat almost

           To the sense,

           And he grows angry.


My reference shelf on Shakespeare also holds Stanley Well’s “A Dictionary of Shakespeare” [Oxford University Press, 1998] which gives Bernard Levin’s encomium on Shakespeare’s influence on the English language:

If you cannot understand my argument, and declare  ‘It’s Greek to me’, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger; if your wish is father to the thought; if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool’s paradise -why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then – to give the devil his due – if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I was dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then – by Jove! O Lord! Tut tut! For goodness’ sake! What the dickens! But me no buts! – it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare.”

Other reference works are the necessary encyclopedias for all researchers and writers in my field, even if they take up a lot of room on my shelves. There is the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1911, in twenty nine volumes. I was browsing in a second hand bookshop in Buffalo when the owner came in bringing several boxes full of books that a recent widow had wished to clear out of her house. I saw what the boxes contained, and even before he had unpacked all of them I was bargaining with him for the Encyclopaedia, which I finally acquired for $75.00 (it must have been round about the year 2001 or 2002). I see that the Eleventh Edition is now on sale (2015) on ebay ranging from $625.00 to $10,000.00. My copy is not in good condition, many of the (leather?)spines are peeling off, but nonetheless it remains a reading copy.

Despite all the evident prejudices, revealing its essentially nineteenth century world view, it has some dazzling essays by many scholars and writers who would now merit an encyclopaedia entry themselves. Sir Kenneth Clark wrote of the Eleventh Edition in his autobiography, Another Part of the Wood[4], “One leaps from one subject to another, fascinated as much by the play of mind and the idiosyncrasies of the authors as by the facts and dates. It must be the last encyclopaedia in the tradition of Diderot which assumes that information can be made memorable only when it is slightly coloured by prejudice. When T. S. Eliot wrote[5] [in Animula]

The pain of living and the drug of dreams

 Curl up the small soul in the window seat
Behind the Encyclopaedia Britannica

he was certainly thinking of the eleventh edition. And for Jorge Luis Borges, the Eleventh Edition was a source of intellectual and literary delight all his life. [6]

But perhaps the greatest homage to the Eleventh edition was paid by Nirad C. Chaudhuri in his autobiographical masterpiece, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, first published in 1951. The latter work infuriated many people simply because of the dedication:

To the memory of the British Empire in India,

Which conferred subjecthood upon us,

But withheld citizenship.

To which yet every one of us threw out the challenge:

‘Civis Britannicus sum’

Because all that was good and living within us

Was made, shaped and quickened

By the same British rule.

Here is Chaudhuri’s account of his excitement – his wild surmise – on his first looking upon the Eleventh Edition:

The greatest public event of 1911 in India was the Delhi Durbar, but for me the most memorable experience was my first acquaintance with the Encyclopaedia Britannica in its newly published eleventh edition. At Kishorganj we had learnt that the biggest English dictionary was the Webster, and whenever anyone there wanted to emphasize the size and weight of a book he said, “As big as Webster.” Even then a rumour had reached us of a still bigger dictionary whose name we heard as Anti-cyclopaedia Britannica. This mistake was a tribute to the nationalist movement which had taught us to be anti most things rather than pro anything and also to assume an inherent virtue in being anti something or other. On coming to Calcutta, however, we were enlightened as to the correct title and true character of the work. We even caught a glimpse of a set of the tenth edition under the double protection of a locked cupboard and a locked room in our school. But our real introduction to the Encyclopaedia took place in October 1911, when a cousin of mine who was an advocate of the High Court and who had bought the eleventh edition just after its publication, left the set in our house for two months, during which he was out of town on account of the annual vacation. We were not expected to take the volumes out of their packing-cases, but we did, although with a bad conscience, and, to begin with, a delicious fragrance gave us notice of the unusual greatness of the work. The appearance of the volumes made a still greater impression. Opening one I murmured, ‘How beautifully smooth and white the paper is, yet how thin!’ My cousin had bought the India paper edition in semi-limp binding of dark green sheepskin, with the arms of the colleges of Cambridge stamped on the sides. For some time we could take in nothing but an idea of the material appearance of the work.

Then we tried to find out what it contained. As chance would have it, the first article to fix my attention was that on dogs….It took me a number of days to work off the excitement over the dogs and take stock of the rest of the work. When I had done that, four articles came finally to keep me engaged on them throughout the time the set remained with us. They were articles on artillery, ordnance, ships and ship-building….A small number of books, which even yet I have not seen and about which I had only read, stirred my imagination so deeply in my early college days that they may be reckoned as very powerful influences on my intellectual growth. The first two of them were Beloch’s Griechische Geschichte and Busolt’s work with the same title. I had learnt their names from the article on Greek history in the Encyclopaedia Britannica….A third book was Bernheim’s Lehrbuch der historischen Methode und der Geschichtsphilosophie, about which I had come to know from Professor Shotwell’s article in the Encyclopaedia Britannica….Appropriately enough, the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica continued to be my mainstay in this absorbing exploration of the interrelatedness of all knowledge, and from it, in addition to acquiring the notion of correlation, I also acquired the bibliographical flair. I always read the bibliographical notes given at the end of the articles very carefully, and came to realize that before one could begin the study of any subject the essential preliminary was a knowledge of the most important books on it.

This evocative fragment manages to suggest and encapsulate so much of the reverence for books, for learning and knowledge, the sheer physical delight at the sight of such a mass of scholarship yet to be tasted, of a boy eager to discover and explore a whole new world. It also somehow symbolizes what Chaudhuri hints at in his dedication, the intellectual and spiritual awakening of India because of its encounter with what was best in Western civilization, as summarized in the articles, bibliographies, and maps, charts, and diagrams in the smooth, white and thin pages of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

I have kept you in suspense long enough, here are, in no particular order, some of the scholars and writers whose words grace this Encyclopaedia (only some of their major articles are referred to): J.B. Bury on Edward Gibbonthe Koran, Semitic Languages, Mo’allakatthe Bertie Russell, the philosopher: he was born in 1872 and died in 1970) on GeometryBiologyIndo-Aryan LanguagesPenates, Thesmophoria; Edmund Gosse on all aspects of English literature including entries on the national literatures of Beligium, Denmark, Norway, Sweden; A.E. Cowley on Hebrew languageOrigen, MarcionArts and CraftsMural DecorationKeats, Walter Savage Landor, Victor Hugo, Christopher MarloweEthicsItaly, PetrarchVerlaine, de Goncourt, Thomas HardyAnarchismRobert Browning, Thomas CarlyleRadio-activity

Here is an extract from Swinburne’s spirited defence of Hugo[7] as one of the greatest poets since Shakespeare:

The precocious eloquence and ardour of these early works made him famous before his time. The odes which he published at the age of twenty, admirable for their spontaneous fervour and fluency, might have been merely the work of a marvellous boy; the ballads which followed them two years later revealed him as a great poet, a natural master of lyric and creative song. …In 1827 he published the great dramatic poem of Cromwell, a masterpiece at all points except that of fitness for the modern stage. Two years afterwards he published Les Orientales, a volume of poems so various in style, so noble in spirit, so perfect in workmanship, in music and in form, that they might alone suffice for the foundation of an immortal fame. In the course of nine years, from 1831 to 1840, he published Les Feuillesd’automne, Les Chants du crépuscule, Les Voix intérieures and Les Rayons et les ombres. That their author was one of the greatest elegiac and lyric poets ever born into the world, any one of these volumes would amply suffice to prove. That he was the greatest tragic and dramatic poet born since the age of Shakespeare, the appearance of Hernani in 1830 made evident for ever to all but the meanest and most perverse of dunces and malignants.

Here is an extract from Leslie Stephen’s entry on Robert Browning:

Another group of poems showed Browning’s interest in Greek literature. Balaustion’s Adventure (1871) includes a “transcript from Euripides,” a translation, that is, of part of the Alcestis. Aristophanes’ Apology (1875) included another translation from the Heracles, and in 1877 he published a very literal translation of the Agamemnon. This, it seems, was meant to disprove the doctrine that Æschylus was a model of literary style. Browning shared his wife’s admiration for Euripides, and takes a phrase from one of her poems as a motto for Balaustion’s Adventure. In the Aristophanes’ Apology this leads characteristically to a long exposition by Aristophanes of his unsatisfactory reasons for ridiculing Euripides. It recalls the apologies of “Blougram” and Louis Napoleon, and contains some interesting indications of his poetical theory. Browning was to many readers as much prophet as poet. His religious position is most explicitly, though still not very clearly, set forth in the Christmas Eve and Easter Day (1850). Like many eminent contemporaries, he combined a disbelief in orthodox dogma with a profound conviction of the importance to the religious instincts of the symbols incorporated in accepted creeds. Saul (1845), A Death in the Desert (1864), and similar poems, show his strong sympathy with the spirit of the old belief, though his argumentative works have a more or less sceptical turn. It was scarcely possible, if desirable, to be original on such topics. His admirers hold that he shows an affinity to German metaphysicians, though he had never read their works nor made any express study of metaphysical questions. His distinctive tendency is to be found rather in the doctrine of life and conduct which both suggests and is illustrated by his psychological analyses. A very characteristic thought emphatically set forth in the Rabbi Ben Ezra (1864) and the Grammarian’s Funeral (1855) is that a man’s value is to be measured, not by the work done, but by the character which has been moulded. He delights in exhibiting the high moral instinct which dares to override ordinary convictions, or which is content with discharge of obscure duties, or superior to vulgar ambition and capable of self-sacrifice, because founded upon pure love and sympathy for human suffering. Browning’s limitations are characteristic of the poetry of strong ethical preoccupations. His strong idiosyncrasy, his sympathy with the heroic and hatred of the base, was hardly to be combined with the Shakespearian capacity for sympathizing with the most varied types of character. Though he deals with a great variety of motive with singularly keen analysis, he takes almost exclusively the moral point of view. That point of view, however, has its importance, and his morality is often embodied in poetry of surpassing force. Browning’s love of the grotesque, sometimes even of the horrible, creates many most graphic and indelible portraits. The absence of an exquisite sense for the right word is compensated by the singular power of striking the most brilliant flashes out of obviously wrong words, and forcing comic rhymes to express the deepest and most serious thoughts. Though he professed to care little for motive as apart from human interest, his incidental touches of description are unsurpassably vivid.[8]


“Read we must, be writers ever so indifferent.” Shaftesbury, Characteristics, 1711.

Islamologists have to have The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Ist and 2nd Editions. I bought the re-issued first edition, in nine volumes, in paperback in, I think, about 1998 for just £90.00. Many of the articles are still valid, and because of the prestige of some of the contributors such as Louis Massignon and Clément Huart, they are of considerable historical value. What is more all of them are free of any political correctness. The Second Edition is also indispensable, but a creeping tone of an apologetic nature is noticeable in some of the contributions. I posssess the electronic version of the second edition on my computer – again when I bought it, it was at a reasonable price. I also have the considerably more expensive Encyclopedia of the Qur’an, also beautifully produced by E.J. Brill; it comes in six volumes, but I only have five volumes not willing to spend $250.00 on volume six, the Index. The contributions are of unequal scientific value. Some are good such as those by Claude Gilliot and Pierre Larcher, but many are totally uncritical, and merely parrot what the classical Muslim Koranic commentators have said, without any attempt to get at the truth, the source of a particular passage, and so on. This uncritical aspect of the Encyclopedia of the Qur’an was noted, and severely criticised by Professor Gabriel Reynolds [9]of the University of Notre Dame (USA).


[1] Rao, Conjeeveram H. editor. The Indian Biographical Dictionary, Madras: Pillar & Co.1915.

[2] Encyclopaedia Britannica,11th Edn., Vol.4, s.n. “Burnell, A.C”. p.850

[3] William Safire , New York Times, March 25, 1990

[4] Kenneth Clark, Another Part of the Wood, A Self Portrait. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1974, p68.

[5] Sir Kenneth garbles the quote as “Soul curled up on the window seat reading the Encyclopedia [sic] Britannica”.  I have given the correct wording from T.S.Eliot, ‘Animula’ in The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1966, p.71

[6]  James Woodall, Borges: A Life. New York: BasicBooks. 1996 p. 76.

[7] Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edn.,Vol, 13, s.n. “Hugo, Victor Marie”, pp.862-864.

[8] Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edn.,Vol. 4, p.673.

[9] Gabriel Said Reynolds. The Qur’?n and Its Biblical Subtext. London: Routledge, 2010.p.257.




Ibn Warraq’s latest book with New English Review Press is Sir Walter Scott’s Crusades and Other Fantasies. His webpage is here.


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