The incredible story of Lillian Virginia Mountweazel and dictionary tomfoolery

image courtesy of http://www.benniereilly.com

apopudobalia: a Greco-Roman sport similar to modern soccer[i]

esquivalience: the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities[ii]

jungftak: a Persian bird, the male of which had only one wing, on the right side, and the female only one wing, on the left sidei

zzxjoanw: a type of Maori drumi

Haven’t heard of these words before? That’s probably because they’re not real. Despite this, each of these words has been published—in, respectively, the German-language Der neue Pauly, The New Oxford American Dictionary, Webster’s New Twentieth Century, and The Musical Guide. The intentional planting of fake entries has been going on for at least a century as a way for dictionaries, encyclopedias, and even maps (Check out the snarkily-named fictitious town of “Beatosu”—for “Beat Ohio State University”—on a Michigan-published map.) to find out if competitors were illegally copying from their publications. So, if esquivalience turned up in a rival dictionary, the makers of The New Oxford American Dictionary would be reaching for their lawyer’s phone number.

These fictitious entries are called mountweazels after Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, a woman famous for being fake. If you were to turn to page 1,850 of the 1975 edition of the New Columbia Encyclopedia, you would find this entry:

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.[iii]

Oh, how I wish Ms. Mountweazel were real. An entire book about mailboxes? I’m practically salivating just thinking about it. But, while this amazing woman may have never walked amongst the living, her fictional life is commemorated by dictionary entries for mountweazel (Dictionary.com’s definition: any invented word or name inserted in a reference work by a publisher for the purpose of detecting plagiarism[iv]), and she even has a facebook page. Well, of course she does. . . .

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4 thoughts on “The incredible story of Lillian Virginia Mountweazel and dictionary tomfoolery

  1. It just goes to prove the old addage – if Lillian Virginia Mountweazel didn’t exist we would be forced to invent her.

    And a whole book on mailboxes? You are right! That is probably the most wonderful thing I’ve heard today. It isn’t quite as cool as this though:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voynich_manuscript

    Still… Pretty f’ing fantastic!

  2. Pingback: The Deadly Bride | Parallel History Museum

  3. Pingback: Episode 80: Ill-Defined History: The ‘F’ Word – Just A Story

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