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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

The encyclopædia of post-Renaissance actuarial culture

In the world’s first encyclopædia, Pliny (the Elder)’s Natural History, Pliny tells us that a sprinkling of vinegar may deter whirlwinds, that the phoenix lives to an age of 540 years, that the smell of boiling crabs is fatal to bees, that Messalina once enjoyed 25 men in 24 hours, that frankincense costs 6 denarii per pound, and that the wine of Falernia is inflammable. This great diversity of thoroughly useful knowledge has at last been surpassed, by no less than the wonderfully eclectic Encyclopædia of post-Renaissance actuarial culture. This weighty tome, recently published by Benares Press, is the brainchild of Pierre Menard and Herbert Quain.

Thematic ordering
One’s first steps into the book are accompanied by a certain feeling of unease: the ordering is not alphabetical but thematic. However, the categorisation of themes seems random and the book is devoid of any index. This peculiar treatment is explained in the section on real encyclopædiae (page 211 in my edition, although be warned that the page numbers do not follow any conventional order, and that there are in fact several page 211s). Here we are told about the Chinese encyclopædia The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. In this book animals are divided into those that belong to the emperor, embalmed ones, those that are trained, suckling pigs, mermaids, those drawn with a fine camel-hair brush, and various other categories (including ‘those animals that have just broken a flower vase’). In celebration of the arbitrariness of categorisation and in rejection of what they call ‘the vulgarly lazy concept of convenience information’, the authors have proudly espoused the holistic concept whereby the work must be read in its entirety.

Actuarial rhyming slang and aphrodisiac guidance notes
Examining a few entries at random quickly reveals the extraordinary breadth and depth of the work. Under ‘Actuarial rhyming slang’ we learn how to communicate with actuaries from the East End, via expressions such as ‘plastic Glen Hoddle’ and ‘top arm-rest’; under ‘Aphrodisiacs’ we find that pulverised GN23 has a noted amorous effect if ingested around the time of the vernal equinox, although an overdose can have unfortunate consequences; under ‘Nursery rhymes’ we are told that the multiple-decrement version of ‘Ten green bottles’ never achieved commercial success, except in Bolivia (we are not told why); under ‘Palindromes’ we read the biography of the gallant actuary who first discovered the number 65,956; under ‘Taxidermy’ we learn of the new black market in Russia for stuffed GI actuaries. It is difficult to find a single page that does not leave one feeling both dazzled and improved.

Peculiarities of the encyclopædia
Some of the entries are bewildering: in the lengthy section on actuarial etymology, for instance, we explore the etymology only of those actuarial terms in Esperanto; the section on paraconsultants consists of a satirical ballad involving the bayoneting and disembowelment of various management accountants; the 12-page entry on actuarial sociolinguistic psychosomatisms is written lipogrammatically, bereft of the letter ‘e’; all entries beginning with the letter ‘S’ are in the style of a Noël Coward play, but as if rewritten by Edward Gibbon.
One other strange feature should be noted. It is a simple truism that the encyclopædia is an established fictional form, a form unusual among other fictional types in that it corresponds significantly to our perception of fact. The authors’ cognisance of their literary heritage is evident in their penchant for deliberate fictional alterations or ‘errors’, as cynics might call them. Likewise, there are various wholly fictional sections, such as that on Ruritania, where we are given a 33-page history of the actuarial profession’s development in that non-existent country. Here we can read at length of the post-qualification initiation rites, a bizarre process which involves the repeated and painful application of splines.

Menard and Quain are strong believers in the idea that, just as any creation is defined by its presence, so it is equally defined by a corresponding absence. Their opus is shaped not so much by what in includes as by what it excludes. The exclusions have a strong, although at first barely perceptible, influence on the impressions we form about the history of actuarial thought and its relationship to other branches of human knowledge.
Exclusions which seem initially surprising although on second thoughts they are clearly but an attempt to shape our subliminal perceptions include iambic pentameter, puppet opera, Victorian diving bells, The Thousand Nights and One Night, Boswell’s footnotes, the Oulipo, circular slide rules, astrolabes, Coleridge’s dreams, hexagonal halos, the Babylonian lottery, and even pseudobibliophilia, to name but a few notable absences.
The authors have attended with great diligence to the choice of the infinite number of articles to be excluded, and the magnitude of that task perhaps explains the long gestation period of the book. It has proven to be worth the wait.