An oddity of Wikipedia

Every now and then, when wading through the swamp that is Wikipaedia, one comes on a tussock of firm ground: something clearly written and well-argued, if a little stilted, which does not leave a methanous smell as you pull your boots away. These outcrops of reliability are, of course, the pieces lifted directly from the 1911 Britannica. It seems to me unlikely that most of the contributors to the rest of the encyclopaedia could actually understand these entries; and sometimes you find little moments where the cut and paste monkey has attempted to decorate Britannica with his own thoughts, like the Dublin journalist who got a knowledgeable friend to write a review of a piano recital, and at the end felt he should add something of his own, so wrote that “Mr X was observed to play with equal facility on the black keys as on the white”.

I first noticed this in the Charles Cotton entry, my one and only attempt at contributing to Wikipedia, where I tried to feather the edges of the EB into something that a modern college student could understand without the kind of Edwardian references that garnish the 1911 text.

But today, clicking on from “Languagehat on the Schwenkfelders,”: I bounced from “this entry”: on old Schwenkfeld himself, which seems to have been written by an American student, to “this, on one of his patrons,”: clearly lifted direct from the 1911 EB. Now, the Schwenkfeld entry is pretty good by the standards of wikipedia. But it feels the need to gloss Silesia as %(sane)”a small province in central Europe”,% whereas the old Zinzendorf entry says that %(sane)”His ancestors belonged to Lower Austria, but had taken the Protestant side in the Reformation struggle, and settled near Nuremberg. His parents belonged to the Pietist circle and the lad had Philipp Jakob Spener for his godfather.”% One can practically smell the wreaths of pipe smoke and the masculine farts.

But I like Zinzendorf. His second wife had the middle name Caritas, and his eldest daughter was called Benigna.

I suspect you would not be reading this without him. He founded on his estates a colony for persecuted Moravian Brethren, and was eventually raised to become a bishop in their church. He financed, says the EB, mission journeys to South America and to the slaves of the Caribbean and the Carolinas. I don’t know much about my paternal ancestors, but I do know that they were descended from Moravian missionaries, one of whom was thrown of a plantation in Jamaica in the early 19th century for preaching to the slaves owned by a cousin of my wife’s. So quite possibly they came through the good Baron’s estates at Herrnhut.

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1 Response to An oddity of Wikipedia

  1. rupert says:

    There are some interesting things going on with Wikipedia. I’m currently (ahem) refreshing (ahem again) my knowledge about how chips work, in particular the bits (oh, ahem yerself) about transistor physics, what exactly is a hi-K dielectric and why it matters. In the course of that, I was reading the Wikipedia entry on the “permittivity of free space”: . Hard core stuff – and if you look in the discussion behind the page, you find “chaps like this”: keeping it on the straight and narrow.

    I don’t know when and how the idea of textbooks got going, nor how it developed – the Wikipedia entry on the subject is ironic – but this must feed back on the process, at the least.

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