Fictional Entries and Spy Words

Plagiarism? Illustration: © Amélie Tourangeau

How do you explain the presence of a false entry in an encyclopedia that is supposed to be authoritative?

Vanessa Allnutt

Lillian Virginia Mountweazel was a fountain designer before turning to photography in the early 1960s. From buses in New York City to mailboxes in rural America, she had an eye for unusual perspectives. Born in 1942 in Bangs, Ohio, she tragically died at only 31 years old while reporting for the magazine Combustibles (note the irony).
If the photographer can claim a certain name recognition today, it is because… she never existed! So, where do these bits of information come from, some of which seem preposterous to say the least? They come from an entry in the fourth edition of the New Columbia Encyclopedia, published in 1975 by Columbia University Press.
How do you explain the presence of a false entry in a work that is supposed to be authoritative? 

When the error is not an error

A rare but documented phenomenon, these “fictitious entries” (or “Mountweazels”) are intentional errors inserted into dictionaries or encyclopedias to identify copyright infringements. When a false entry is reproduced by a competitor, it is easier to prove that there was indeed a copyright infringement. It is difficult to cry plagiarism when it comes to simple objective facts or public knowledge. The apple is the fruit of the apple tree, no matter which dictionary you consult.
However, things look quite differently for the word “esquivalience.” You will have difficulty finding a definition for it in a reference book – unless you own one of the first two editions of the New Oxford American Dictionary. There, you will learn that “esquivalience” is “the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities.” For almost 15 years, the presence of this ghost word went unnoticed. The authors eventually let the cat out of the bag in 2015.
Since nobody can search for a word or an encyclopedic entry that does not exist, these false entries are considered harmless, but useful for thwarting plagiarists. Editors certainly don’t lack humor when it comes to unleashing their imagination.

When the error leads to a dead-end street

You may wonder whether Lillian Virginia Mountweazel ever visited London, since she was an avid traveler who photographed the cemeteries of Paris. A fictional character like her might as well have been trotting along an equally fictitious street: Moat Lane, in the north of the London, which can be found on the maps of Tele Atlas (and reproduced by Google Maps at a time when the web giant was still using data from the Dutch company, legally, it should be duly noted).
Intentional errors not only exist in dictionaries and encyclopedias, they are also sometimes added to road maps without our knowledge. These “trap streets” are sometimes real streets whose route has been slightly modified. In either case, the goal remains the same: to catch copycats with their hands in the cookie jar.
But mind you, trap streets are not necessarily legally protected. In the United States, for example, they are not subject to copyright, unlike real facts. To prohibit the reproduction of fictional facts, which are represented as actual facts interspersed among other actual facts, would mean to prevent the free flow of all factual information, since one could never be sure of reproducing facts without violating a copyright.
Hence, trap streets are primarily fingerprints that perpetrators leave behind at the scene of the crime – one proof among many.

When the error is part of the strategy

These tactics do not only occur in the publishing world. In 2011, Google publicly accused its competitor Microsoft of copying its search results. To plead their case, the software engineers in Mountain View created a hundred senseless queries from scratch and combined them with false search results (the search for “hiybbprqag” led to the website of a Los Angeles theater company in Los Angeles). Surprise, after two weeks, Bing searches yielded the same results...
Despite rather overwhelming evidence, Microsoft denied Google’s allegations, but in turn accused it of setting a trap (called a “honeypot trap” in IT jargon). The story did not continue, but these intentional errors, which Google later fixed, revealed certain questionable practices on behalf of a competitor – practices which even Lillian Virginia Mountweazel no doubt would have condemned.

You might also like