After Hours

Geek Trivia: Editorial oversight

What fictional word accidentally created by a lexicographer appeared and remained undetected in five consecutive editions of <em>Webster's Dictionary</em> in the 1930s?

Editor's note: As the Trivia Geek gets back in the swing of things for 2008 (read: New Year's hangover), he's decided to run this Classic Geek, originally published Feb. 27, 2007, as a response to Merriam-Webster declaring w00t as the Word of the Year for 2007. This should remind you that not all editorial decisions are good ones. If you're ever in the presence of someone who claims to be a serious lexicographer or etymologist and want to check if said person is really just full of it, throw out the word Mountweazel, and gauge the reaction: If your subject gives you a "say what?" expression, you are not in the presence of a true word scholar. If he or she giggles and/or begins recounting the mind-numbing tale of a favorite copyright violation, you've got a true linguaphile on your hands.

Mountweazel, you see, refers to Lillian Mountweazel, who earned this entry in the 1975 edition of the New Columbia Encyclopedia:

"Mountweazel, Lillian Virginia, 1942-1973, American photographer, b. Bangs, Ohio. Turning from fountain design to photography in 1963, Mountweazel produced her celebrated portraits of the South Sierra Miwok in 1964. She was awarded government grants to make a series of photo-essays of unusual subject matter, including New York City buses, the cemeteries of Paris and rural American mailboxes. The last group was exhibited extensively abroad and published as Flags Up! (1972) Mountweazel died at 31 in an explosion while on assignment for Combustibles magazine."

Mountweazel is more famous for this encyclopedia entry than her actual work because neither she nor her work ever actually existed. Mountweazel was a so-called copyright trap — a fictitious entry composed specifically to note whether persons were copying Columbia content without due attribution or royalties.

If another book showed up with a copied reference to Mountweazel, Columbia editors and lawyers would check for other copyright violations within the same work. Today, professional editors refer to such telltale fictitious content as a Mountweazel. Think of it as the lexicographer's version of the infamous "brown M&M" contract rider used by Van Halen.

But let's not confuse a Mountweazel with a ghost word. The former is an intentionally fictional term or entry, while the latter is something accidentally invented.

Despite the fact that reference editors so closely guard their linguistic integrity as to make stuff up in defense of their works, they do occasionally unintentionally create words without ever meaning to. One such term — which passed itself off as a scientific synonym — actually appeared and survived in five consecutive editions of Webster's Dictionary in the 1930s.


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Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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