The Grammarphobia Blog

In search of the wild Mountweazel

Q: I’ve read that the editors of the New Oxford American Dictionary once planted a fake word, “esquivalience,” as bait to catch lexicographers intent on stealing their material. Do you know of other examples of this?

A: “Esquivalience” is indeed a fake word. It was planted in the 2001 edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary to protect the copyright of the electronic version that came with most copies of the book, according to the editor-in-chief.

The definition: “the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities.”

In 2005, the humorist Henry Alford wrote an article for the New Yorker about the genesis of “esquivalience.” He even coined a term for fake entries in dictionaries and encyclopedias: “Mountweazels.”

His inspiration for the neologism was a fake biographical entry for “Lillian Virginia Mountweazel” in the 1975 edition of the New Columbia Encyclopedia.

The fictional Ms. Mountweazel, Alford says, was supposedly “a fountain designer turned photographer who was celebrated for a collection of photographs of rural American mailboxes titled ‘Flags Up!’ ”

The encyclopedia entry, Alford adds, indicates that she “was born in Bangs, Ohio, in 1942, only to die ‘at 31 in an explosion while on assignment for Combustibles magazine.’ ”

He quotes one of the encyclopedia’s editors as saying: “It was an old tradition in encyclopedias to put in a fake entry to protect your copyright. If someone copied Lillian, then we’d know they’d stolen from us.”

You asked whether we knew of other examples. As a matter of fact, we do.

Reference books aren’t the only repository of Mountweazels. Maps, too, have been known to contain fake names for streets and towns.

A 1978 Michigan Department of Transportation highway map shows two towns, Goblu and Beatosu, that don’t exist. They were fakes, based on University of Michigan football cheers, “Go blue!” and “Beat OSU!” (for Ohio State University).

Mountweazels have invaded the non-print media as well.

A few months ago, Google said it had rigged a number of fake search queries, using nonsense terms like “hiybbprqag” and “mbzrxpgjys,” which would turn up results with no relation at all to the search terms.

Why? Google said it was trying to catch Bing, Microsoft’s search engine, in the act of stealing its material.

The synthetic queries, Google explained, did not appear within the Web pages that came up, and there was no reason for any other search engine to return the faked results.

Google said the sting operation worked. It claimed, for instance, that a search on Bing for the term “hiybbprqag” turned up a planted page about seating at a theater in Los Angeles. Microsoft, however, denied Google’s allegations.

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