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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.

WHAT FICTIONAL WORD ACCIDENTALLY APPEARED IN FIVE CONSECUTIVE EDITIONS OF WEBSTER'S DICTIONARY IN THE 1930s?

Get the answer.

About

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...

14 comments
LYosko1903
LYosko1903

Not only is this an interesting article, but it would be interesting to see if, one day, a student were to see the entry about Lilian Mountweazel, and try to do a report on her. Speaking of reports and papers and students, it seems to me that the whole concept behind the Mountweazel entry is tantamount to deliberately putting a typo into a paper or report to see if a student actually wrote his or her paper, or copied it wholesale, with the intent on passing it off as their own.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

My last tour in Germany, I was trying to find the road between two towns on the North Sea coast. The road was clearly marked on the map, but did not actually exist. The road started out of town, but the pavement ended in a parking lot; the intervening distance to the next town (about 3 km) was sand dunes. When I contacted the map's provider about the error, they apologized, but identified the error as a Mountweazel entry to help protect their copyright.

GSG
GSG

That must be why I had so much fun (not) driving in Dallas looking for a particular street as all the drunks were exiting the stadium where the Cowboys were playing. I finally stopped and asked for directions only to be told that that street didn't exist and that they get people like me stopping all the time.

jonsaint
jonsaint

I had the unpleasant experience of living on a street in Austin, TX which was mis-named on the Rand McNally map of that city for years as a check on competitors copying their maps. I had to tell cab drivers and such the wrong name in order to get them to fine my home at all.

RosaNegra
RosaNegra

Well that explains the road between Lake Wales & Lakeland in Florida that ended in an industrial park instead of continuing on as we expected from the map. Not amusing with 3 tired kids in the car.

Zeppo9191
Zeppo9191

Google Maps shows a nonexistent road in my town. I wonder if it's there for copyright purposes.

paul.hamer
paul.hamer

In the UK Ordnance Survey Maps have deliberate "errors" too, so that they can find out if people have copied their maps (which are crown copyright) without permission. These are usually place names rather than topographical features that would affect the accuracy of the map.

graeme_st_clair
graeme_st_clair

That should be "plum" role...

ksunken
ksunken

I don't know, maybe the author meant that Ms. Roddenberry played her role "straight" in which case it would be plumb...

chuckp1066
chuckp1066

Only if she was on the up and up. Not that she would ever take any role laying down...

DMambo
DMambo

Using the term "Webster's Dictionary" was not very precise. That term is in the public domain and any schmoe with a press can publish a Webster's Dictionary. By using the full title of Merriam-Webster's publication in the answer, you redeemed yourself. Here's Wikipedia's discussion of Webster's dictionary: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Webster's_Dictionary

TechController
TechController

"Instead, it lives on in various lexicographical texts as an example of the necessity of editing, the nebulous nature of language?and, or course, word-worthy Geek Trivia." Or course? Was this intended to be funny? or is this a lack of editing? lol

mdhealy
mdhealy

In his classic book "Rethinking Systems Analysis & Design," Gerald Weinberg tells of a time when some examples of INCORRECT output in one of his programming textbooks got *fixed* by a copyeditor, thereby making his discussion of the code bugs that had produced them rather difficult to follow.

rkendsley
rkendsley

It now appears as 'of' with no response about the mistake! (Reminds me of those huge erasers with the phrase: "I make lots of misteaks!" or something to that effect.... Hmmmm.............

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