Tuesday, January 2, 2007


Wikipedia contains errors.  Encyclopedia Britannica contains errors.  It is in the nature of information that some of it is erroneous.  People, and well-designed systems, develop strategies for dealing with incorrect or incomplete information, such as verification, validation, and rough probabilistic measures of confidence.  Less well-designed systems can compound errors until someone notices.  This leads to amusing human interest stories, such as 105-year olds being reminded to enroll in kindergarten and million-dollar residential utility bills.  Which is a good thing, because sometimes it takes media embarrassment to move an intransigent bureaucracy.

A potential problem with Wikipedia is the lack of authority.  Conventional encyclopedias are written by people who should be qualified to write them; that is how they are selected.  Wikipedia entries might be written by anyone.  But this does not seem to be as much of a problem in practice.  Partisans and other people with an agenda betray themselves by claiming the totally outrageous and not just the somewhat improbable.  People who don't know what they are talking about usually do a poor job of trying to explain and often just write poorly.  Moreover, things do improve over time.  Absent active vandalism, facts are corrected and up-to-date knowledge is added.

No, the real problem with Wikipedia, I find, is the lack of editing.  Everyone is encouraged to put in new pieces of information.  The result is a lack of balance and consistency.  Disproportionate space is taken up by secondary information, in extraordinary detail.  The implied commitment to find all the similar entries and add the corresponding information is not fulfilled.  And things do not get better over time.  What is needed is a major rearrangement of whole areas of the encyclopedia.  There are capable resources willing to do this for only some topics.  And even when it does happen, it only takes a little bit for things to get out of whack again.

Which brings me to okra.

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Sir Richard F. Burton, like other Victorian travelers of his sort, tries to occasionally take careful note of what everyone is eating. In Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah, "The principal vegetables are Badanjan (Egg-plant), the Bamiyah (a kind of esculent hibiscus, called Bhendi in India), and Mulukhiyah (Corchoris olitorius), a mucilaginous spinage common throughout this part of the East."  In Two Trips to Gorilla Land and the Cataracts of the Congo, "The vegetables are 'Mbongwe' (yams), koko or Colocasia esculenta, Occras (Hibiscus esculentus), squashes (pumpkins), cucumbers, beans of several sorts, and the sweet potato, an esculent disliked by Englishmen, but far more nutritious than the miserable 'Irish' tuber."  Esculent hibiscus, that's okra, right?  bhendi is clearly what I see more often spelled bhindi.  And occra is equally clearly the same word. (Save that potato crack for another day.)

After enjoying another bhindi masala, or maybe the okra stew special at the local Lebanese place, I looked into it a little more, in reference books — more and more of which are online every day, and online-only sources like Wikipedia.

As always, Hobson-Jobson has a comprehensive entry, giving Indian and Arabic forms and citing Burton and Lane.

According to Sturtevant's Edible Plants of the World, "The Spanish Moors appear to have been well acquainted with this plant, which was known to them by the name of bamiyah. Abul-Abbas el-Nebati, a native of Seville, learned in plants, who visited Egypt in 1216, describes in unmistakable terms the form of the plant, its seeds and fruit, which last, he remarks, is eaten when young and tender with meal by the Egyptians."  That is, Abu al-Abbas al-Nabati; this page has an entry on that vegetable with his name (I cannot make out whether it is a quotation).

Some fun with Unicode:
In Arabic: بامية bamiyah, which is in Wehr, but I cannot find it in Lane's Lexicon. (The okra stew is بامية بالزيت bamyeh bil-zayt.)
Similarly in Persian: باميه bamiyeh.
And Greek: μπάμια bamia.
And Bulgarian: бамя bamya.
And Armenian: բամիա bamiya.
In Hindi: भिण्डी bhinḍī.
Similarly in Tamil: வெண்டைக்காய் veṇṭaikkāy (i.e. Anglo-Indian bendi-kai), which feature in this online lesson from UPenn, including video of buying okra.
Crum's Coptic Dictionary lists ϫⲁⲡⲟⲣ as 'kind of mallow: بامية (hibiscus, althaea)', suggesting that the Arabic may apply to several different plants.  Černý's Coptic Etymological Dictionary does not give one for this word.
In Thai: กระเจี๊ยบ grà-jíap, actually the name for several Hibiscus plants, including okra and red sorrel, whose leaves and flowers are dried to make a tea-like drink.  To refer to the vegetable more specifically is apparently กระเจี๊ยบเขียว grà-jíap kĭeow.
In Chinese: 黃秋葵 huang2qui1kui2 or just qui1kui2 '[yellow] autumn sunflower'.

One of the reminders is a restaurant in Back Bay named Bhindi Bazaar, or 'okra market', which is evidently the name of a commercial area in Mumbai.  Robert Nadeau gave one of its okra dishes his "Best eponymous entrée" award in 2002.  (It's owned by the same people as Rangoli and Tanjore and the former Bombay Bistro.  Someone really should do a genealogy of Boston Indian restaurants, including families and chefs who have gone on to open their own restaurants, and how Oh Calcutta! moved from Cambridge to Framingham and created Taj and then Ethnic Gourmet frozen foods, which got bought by Heinz and then spun out into Hain.  Maybe a Wikipedia page.)

The Wikipedia okra entry is admirable over all.  It has pictures of the plants and pods.  It explains the origins and uses.  But when it comes to listing some of its names, it gives the Arabic but not the Persian and the Tamil but not the Hindi, which is the form I would expect one would encounter much more often in restaurants in the US and the UK.  The only mention of gumbo is inexplicably qualified with Charleston; is it not in Louisiana gumbo, too?  There is a brief mention of pickling and then later a description of an "Okratini"; aren't pickled okra mainly just standalone snacks?

The automatic objection whenever you complains about Wikipedia is that you are free to fix whatever you think is wrong.  And indeed, if you look at the entry now, you will see that I did add the bits that I felt were missing.  But in a very real sense, I actually made things worse by adding more disconnected pieces.  And I could not bring myself to remove anything, since I was not undertaking the bigger job of redoing it all.

Perhaps I am supposed to think of Wikipedia not as a coherent presentation of its information, but as information stew — or gumbo.


gareth.rees said...

It's not surprising that Wikipedia is poorly edited: anyone can add a fact, but editing is hard, and comparatively few people have the skill.