I just discovered the weird and wonderful glossary of the Stammtisch Beau Fleuve. The upside is that it has all sorts of great tidbits of information; the downside is that you have no idea how much faith to put in it. For instance, here’s the second half of the entry for viz:

Viz. is an abbreviation of the Latin adverb videlicet, which originally meant something like “clearly,” and came from the expression videre licet, meaning “to be able to see.” You may ask: ‘where does the z come from?’ What z? Oh! That z. The one in the abbreviation. Well, this may be hard to believe, but back in the Middle Ages, before the time when life started to get hectic, books were reproduced by hand. Even monks, who have centuries to work, would get writer’s cramp, so they would come to another long and frequently-appearing word like videlicet, peer down towards the end of it and think: ‘everyone knows what the word is.’ Like good sports they’d start out to write it, but by the time they’d written v i they would begin to LOSE HEART, so they’d just sort of write a squiggle that looks like a resistor in a circuit diagram, except that those things didn’t exist yet. Instead, they saw that it resembled a z (especially a script z), so they got into the habit of writing v i z .

Now, videre licet doesn’t mean ‘to be able to see,’ it means ‘it is permitted to see’ (viz, ‘you can [clearly] see’); is his description of the monks’ abbreviation equally sloppy? I don’t know, but it’s fun.

I found the glossary via Avva, who links to its entry on Voltaire:

The phrase
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”
is widely attributed to Voltaire, but cannot be found in his writings. With good reason. The phrase was invented by a later author as an epitome of his attitude.
It appeared in The Friends of Voltaire (1906), written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall under the pseudonym S[tephen] G. Tallentyre…

For the rest of the lengthy story, visit the link; Avva adds that the allegedly actual Voltaire quotation “Monsieur l’abbé, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write” does not in fact come from “a 6 February 1770 letter to M. le Riche”—in fact, there’s no more evidence for its authenticity at this point than there is for the famous line. Quote-hunting is a difficult business.


  1. aldiboronti says:

    It’s a real curate’s egg of a site. Some of the entries are very well sourced indeed, such as the article on the name Pakistan which proved a godsend when the question came up on Word Origins. Others are not referenced at all. As you say, weird and wonderful.

  2. Tim May says:

    I’ve been there before. Once, when I was looking for information on the word philosophunculist – which is not defined, but turns up in the entries for calculus and Idiot. It really is extraordinarily strange. The terms defined are so heterogeneous, and the definitions so variable in style, as well as in quality… I remember going up to try to find out what the SBF was, and failing to come to any satisfactory conclusion.

  3. So the one whom it is permitted to see is the vizier?

  4. There’s a famous line from George Washington about the nature of government, which (it is said) cannot be found in any source earlier than Mencken’s book of quotations.

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