Published on

Red Herring


Henry Alford does a little sleuthing for the New Yorker – to locate a “Mountweazel” in the New Oxford American Dictionary.

Turn to page 1,850 of the 1975 edition of the New Columbia Encyclopedia and you'll find an entry for Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, a fountain designer turned photographer who was celebrated for a collection of photographs of rural American mailboxes titled “Flags Up!” Mountweazel, the encyclopedia indicates, was born in Bangs, Ohio, in 1942, only to die “at 31 in an explosion while on assignment for Combustibles magazine.”

If Mountweazel is not a household name, even in fountain-designing or mailbox-photography circles, that is because she never existed. “It was an old tradition in encyclopedias to put in a fake entry to protect your copyright,” Richard Steins, who was one of the volume's editors, said the other day. “If someone copied Lillian, then we'd know they'd stolen from us.”

Following the tradition of this (and other) Encyclopedias, the New Oxford American Dictionary decided to put a fake word in their latest edition. Using a single leaked clue (that the word started with an ‘e'), Alford whittled down the list to six and then consulted a few lexicographical authorites, who narrowed it down to one word.

esquivalience - n. the willful avoidance of one's official responsibilities . . . late 19th cent.: perhaps from French esquiver, “dodge, slink away.”

A call was placed to Erin McKean, the editor-in-chief of the second edition of NOAD. Upon being presented with the majority opinion, McKean confirmed that “esquivalience” was a fabricated word.

[…]The word has since been spotted on, which cites Webster's New Millennium as its source. “It's interesting for us that we can see their methodology,” McKean said. “Or lack thereof. It's like tagging and releasing giant turtles.”

Incidentally, this is a trick that I've used quite often on this very website – the occasional typoos you see are cleverly disguised mountweazels. I feel significantly lighter now after this confession, although it could also be because I moved my monster Dell from my lap to the desk.