Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Beware the mountweazel

Ever heard of a mountweazel?

Mountweazel is an eponym -- a coined word based on the name of a person.  (Other examples are guillotine, boycott, sandwich, shrapnel, cardigan, and mesmerize.)  The word honors Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, fountain designer turned photographer, famous for her photo-essays on such disparate subjects as New York City buses, Paris cemeteries, and rural mailboxes.  Tragically, though, Mountweazel came to a sad end, dying in a devastating explosion while on assignment for a story with Combustibles magazine.

There's only one difficulty, and the more suspicious of you might already have guessed it.

There's no such person as Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, and never has been.

She was the invention of Henry Alford, writer for The New Yorker, who in 1975 created a biographic entry for the fictitious Ms. Mountweazel in the New Columbia Encyclopedia.  It wasn't just done as a joke -- funny as it is -- it was put there as a copyright trap, to catch people who were lifting entries from the encyclopedia in toto and putting them into other works.  The word mountweazel is now used as a term for deliberate false information included in reference works, usually in order to catch attempted plagiarists.

Other examples of mountweazels:
  • The word esquivalience from The New Oxford American Dictionary, defined as "the willful avoidance of one's official responsibilities."  Which, if it wasn't a word before, certainly is now, because that's a concept we badly needed a name for.
  • The German medical encyclopedia Pschyrembel Klinisches W├Ârterbuch has an entry for a Steinlaus (stone louse), an arthropod that eats rocks.  Its scientific name is Petrophaga lorioti, "Loriot's rock-eater," commemorating its inventor, the German humorist Loriot.  The Steinlaus is said to have been instrumental in the fall of the Berlin Wall.
  • Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language had an entry for a bird called a jungftak: "jungftak, n. Persian bird, the male of which had only one wing, on the right side, and the female only one wing, on the left side; instead of the missing wings, the male had a hook of bone, and the female an eyelet of bone, and it was by uniting hook and eye that they were enabled to fly — each, when alone, had to remain on the ground."
  • Numerous examples of fictitious places included on official maps, including Mount Richard -- a mountain on the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains of the United States -- which appeared on a number of maps printed in the 1970s.  Its nonexistence wasn't discovered for several years.
  • The fictitious town of Ripton, Massachusetts was created -- as it were -- as an attempt to expose the ignorance of urban political leaders about rural areas they govern.  Before the hoax was exposed, Ripton had received a budget appropriation and several sizable grants.
  • Before discontinuing the practice because so many people got suckered, Discover magazine included in their April issue a single prank article along with the usual real scientific fare.  Some of their finer efforts included particle physicists' discovery of a basketball-sized particle called the "bigon," a paper by a team of archaeologists about Neanderthal orchestras (complete with rhinoceros-bladder bagpipes, a mastodon-tusk tuba, and a bone triangle), and a study of the "hotheaded naked ice-borer," a carnivorous Antarctic mammal that could generate heat from an organ in its forehead, allowing it to tunnel its way through floating ice sheets and eat penguins.  The scientist who studied them, Philippe Poisson, was said to have been devoured by ice-borers himself while on expedition.
  • A survey of food tastes created in the 1970s by the United States Army included items such as funistrada, buttered ermal, and braised traike to catch respondents who were selecting random answers just to get the survey over with.
While (as a writer) I certainly understand the motivation of frustrated publishers trying to protect their books from being plagiarized, there's a problem with all this, and it has to do with trust.  When we pick up a reference work, we expect that we can rely on its contents to be correct -- throwing in a false entry can have the effect of making people doubt the veracity of the entire work.  (Although it must be said that anyone who took the hotheaded naked ice-borer seriously deserved everything they got.)  Hoaxes can catch people other than the target Bad Guys, and you have to wonder how many people have followed maps that have "trap streets" or "paper towns" and gotten lost through no fault of their own other than a reliance on the good intentions of whoever made the map.

A map of Oxford, English showing Goy Close, a nonexistent street 

Another interesting unintended consequence of mountweazels, though, is that they can eventually lead to something real.  Like, for example, the word mountweazel itself.  I noticed while writing this that esquivalience doesn't get flagged by the software I'm writing on as a misspelling -- evidently that word has been cited  commonly enough that it's being treated as real.  A while back I wrote about a step in aerobic cellular respiration that didn't have a name, and when some high school AP Biology students asked their teacher, a Mr. Swanson, what they should call it, he said, "I dunno.  Call it the Swanson Conversion."  One of the students put the name into the Wikipedia article for cellular respiration -- and it stuck.

There are now numbers of college-level biochemistry websites that use the name "Swanson Conversion" for the formerly-nameless step.

So mountweazels are a mixed bag.  They certainly can be funny, but the idea of intentionally misleading people in a reference work -- even with the purpose of foiling would-be plagiarists -- is problematic to me.  And because languages are constantly picking up new words, the unintended consequence can be coining new words, turning a deliberately false entry into something that has at least some measure of reality.

All an indication that even when you pick up a reputable encyclopedia, dictionary, or map, you need to keep your critical thinking skills handy -- lest the vicious mountweazel run up and bite you on the ass.

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