Tag Archives: citations

Just for reference

This article was originally published on BoldFace, the blog of Editors Toronto.

If you edit academic books or articles, you probably spend a lot of time tidying up references. Sometimes as much time as editing the entire rest of the text. First, you have to pick your style: Chicago (note or name-date), MLA, APA, or, in the sciences, AMA or Vancouver. Then, you have to make everything consistent with it, to the extent possible. On top of that, you may have to look up the sources to double-check them.

I’ve edited medical continuing-education presentations that had no bibliographies and would cite some sources as just, for instance, “Heinz & Wong 2013.” I would have to find the rest of the citation—and I would, nearly every time, with a single search. Which means that anyone else who wanted to know would also be able to find it as quickly. Our citation standards were developed before the wonderful world of high-powered search engines. If we can find the source from an incomplete or inaccurate citation, how much of this tidying up is necessary? Continue reading

omnibus notum, scilicet

Good scholars always want to add to their skill kits, obviously, but they can sometimes be a silly set too. There are times when levity is the only sensible response to the gravity of the situation – to wit, when there is something that everyone knows, or that follows easily from something everyone knows, but no one has bothered proving. It’s not that citations bring excitation, but there is an expectation that if you say it you can cite a source for it. If it’s notable, it should be footnotable; absence of a note would be ominous. So when you are making a point in a paper, and you get to something that’s important to the point, and it’s an “everybody knows” thing or a “well of course” thing, but you can’t find prior research to support it, what do you do?

What you want to do is footnote it with “Obviously” or “Everybody knows this.” But that seems rather… um… frank. Frankly English, for one thing. This is scholarship, you know! You don’t put “Smith, the same one I just cited,” you put “Smith, ibid.”; you don’t put “Smith, here and there throughout the book,” you put “Smith, passim.” So what do you put instead of “Everybody knows this” or “Obviously”? I’d be tempted to put res ipsa loquitur, a well-known phrase that means ‘the thing speaks for itself’, but it has a specific legal use – to wit: the very nature of a particular accident is evidence of negligence (i.e., that kind of accident can’t happen unless someone screws up).

So I put the question to fellow scholars on Twitter, which in such matters can be an omnibus full of notables. Various suggestions came through. One from Laura Gibbs that I especially liked was omnibus notum. This does not mean a post-it note on a transit vehicle; it’s Latin for ‘known by all’. It can easily be abbreviated to om. not. or o.n. If the reader sees you footnote “An egg will probably break if you drop it from shoulder height onto a tile floor” and says, “A footnote? Are you joking?” you can say “I om. not.

An even more cogent one could be what Gregory Stringer suggested: scilicet. It’s a term used in various Latin writings; it is actually a synthesis of scio licet, which means ‘it is permitted to know’, but the Romans used it to mean ‘obviously’ or ‘naturally’ or, in a concessive manner, ‘of course’, to be followed with a sed (‘but’) clause. It can be pronounced in the classical Latin way, “ski li ket,” or it can be said in the English way, like “silla set” or “sigh la set.”

The fact that there is an existing English-style pronunciation for it tells us that it is in use as an English word.1 So we’re all set, right? Hmm, well. There are two English usages. One, no longer current, means ‘doubtlessly’ sarcastically: “Should Trump become president, he will scilicet brush up his diplomatic skills.” The other one uses it in another sense available from its construction: ‘evidently’ or ‘to wit’. That is to say, it means ‘that is to say’ – i.e., it’s another way to say i.e. It’s like a clickable plus sign that has expanded to show the extra information. So if you set scilicet the reader may be conditioned to expect just that thing you were using it to avoid: an explanation.

Ah, drat. No rest for the learnèd. However obvious the thing, however needless an explanation seems to be, you can’t always conceal it, or skip it, or hope it’s too obvious for a note. Why not? Because, as Mark Twain wrote, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”2 The great advances of knowledge have come from disproving the obvious.3 So you sigh and see what you can set down.

Thanks to Iva Cheung for setting this thought train in motion.

 

1Res ipsa loquitur.

2Actually, this can’t be found in any of Twain’s writings, though he did write “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so” in Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar. A similar quote is attributed to Twain’s contemporary Josh Billings: “It ain’t ignorance causes so much trouble; it’s folks knowing so much that ain’t so.” This likewise does not appear in Billings’s work. But Billings’s 1874 Everybody’s Friend, or Josh Billling’s Encyclopedia and Proverbial Philosophy of Wit and Humor has “I honestly believe it is better to know nothing than to know what ain’t so.” (Thanks to Bob Kalsey, http://wellnowbob.blogspot.ca/2008/07/it-aint-what-you-dont-know.html, for this.) In any case, the idea itself has an intuitive appeal and a certain… obviousness?

3If this doesn’t seem obvious to you, I can’t see why not.