I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases, almanacs, and other such reference volumes are supposed to be the final word on a vast array of subjects. Unfortunately, errors creep in and sometimes they are intentionally included.
Trapping Plagiarists with Ghost Words
For one reason or another, non-words have turned up in scholarly works and quality dictionaries. The philologist Walter William Skeat called these linguistic hiccoughs “ghost words” in a speech in 1886.
In 2001, and in subsequent editions, The New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD) contains the word “esquivalience,” defined as “the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities.” But, it’s a made-up word, created by the dictionary’s editors to catch plagiarists. If esquivalience appears in a competitor’s dictionary, NOAD will know its work had been stolen and lawsuits will be filed.
However, in a strange irony, once the hidden trap had been exposed, esquivalience took on a life of its own, and may enter the English language as a real word in its own right and join another word that already might exist.
The word for this kind of trickery is―nihilartikel. It is a combination of Latin for nothing “nihil” and German for article “artikel,” therefore “nothing article.” Or, is it?
Some people suggest that nihilartikel is a joke word created by academics as a spoof. Marissa Laliberte (Reader’s Digest) suggests a labyrinthine way in which this word came about. She says it turns up in a bogus 2004 English-language Wikipedia article that references and earlier German Wikipedia entry. Laliberte suggests nihilartikel “might be a made-up story about a made-up story about a word for made-up stories.”
The Curse of the Typo
Some ghost words are simply typographical errors that get past hawk-eyed editors.
Early in the nineteenth century, The Oxford English Dictionary unleashed the word “cairbow” on the world. The venerable volume used the word in the following sentence: “It [the Cairbow] then suddenly squats upon its haunches, and slides along the glare-ice.”
What kind of critter might a cairbow be? Spelled correctly it is a caribou.
“Dord” is an oft-quoted example of what happens when the typographical gremlin gets loose in a print shop. In the 1934 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary, the word appeared as a definition for density in both physics and chemistry.
There was a mix-up in the editing process. A query on a card as to whether the abbreviation for density should be printed as “D” or “d” ended up being set in type as “Dord.” The mistake escaped the attention of those charged with stopping such blunders. It was five years before an editor caught the mistake and excised the ghost word from future editions.
Read More From Owlcation
The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians is described by The Guardian as “Britannica and the Bible rolled into one.” It is the standard reference work on Western classical music, runs to several volumes, and has tens of thousands of entries.
It may seem churlish to find fault with such a monumental work of scholarship but there is the matter Dag Henrik Esrum-Hellerup. His entry in the 1980 edition of the dictionary reads, in part:
“Esrum-Hellerup, Dag Henrik (b Århus, 19 July 1803, d Graested, 8 Sept 1891). Danish flautist, conductor and composer. His father Johann Henrik (1773-1843) served in the Schwerin court orchestra before becoming chamber flautist to King Christian IX; he was subsequently honoured as Hofkammermusicus.”
However, dear old Dag never existed; he was a figment of the impish imagination of Scandinavian music expert Robert Layton. He offered the biography to Grove as a joke but thought it would not fool the editors.
The name Lillian Virginia Mountweazel sounds a bit dodgy from the outset, and it is. She was listed in The New Columbia Encyclopedia in 1975 as an American photographer from Bangs, Ohio.
There is an unincorporated village called Bangs, but linked to a comment on Ms. Mountweazel’s untimely demise―“Mountweazel died at 31 in an explosion while on assignment for Combustibles magazine”―even the dimwitted should have caught on that something was amiss.
It turns out Ms. Mountweazel was another copyright trap.
Map makers go to a great deal of trouble and expense creating accurate charts of localities so people don’t get lost or end up plunging into a sewage farm. In order to stop others from ripping off their work, cartographers insert phantom communities and streets in their publications.
The people who create the incredibly detailed Ordnance Survey maps in Britain hide what are known in their trade as “fingerprints” in their publications. These might be an extra squiggle in a road or showing a narrow lane as a wider street.
They are put there to trap would-be copiers, as they did in 1996, when Britain’s Automobile Association (AA) was caught plagiarizing an Ordnance Survey map. After five years of legal wrangling, the AA agreed to an out-of-court settlement in the not insignificant amount of £20 million.
Argleton is the name of a non-existent village in England that appeared in Google Earth maps in 2009. Was this a simple error, a misspelling of the nearby village of Aughton, which also appears on the map, or was something more sinister going on?
Google has been tight-lipped about the inclusion of Argleton, saying errors do sometimes occur, but perhaps there’s a clue to be found in an anagram of the name―”Not real G.” The village has since been restored to its former glory as a nondescript farmer’s field.
- Peter Fletcher was chairman of the Michigan State Highway Commission and a man described as having a “sly sense of humour.” In 1978, official Michigan maps appeared with the communities across the border in nearby Ohio labelled as beatosu and goblu, in lower case. This had to do with football rivalry between the University of Michigan whose chant was “Go Blue,” and Ohio State University “Beat OSU.” Fletcher was an alumnus of the University of Michigan.
- The first version of the Official Scrabble Dictionary came out in 1978. Despite the involvement of experts from compilers such as Random House and Merriam-Webster, the book was filled with errors. Foreign words found their way in, some words were misspelled, and thousands of English words, such as meltdown and granola, were omitted.
- Pseudodictionary was a short-lived online attempt to catalogue words that people invented. One entry was “ ‘plumpkin’―A well-rounded relative.”
- An article on Wikipedia lists 64 factual errors in the Encyclopedia Britannica, which is a bit rich coming from the online source that is itself notoriously error-prone.
- “9 Fake Words That Actually Ended Up in the Dictionary.” Marissa Laliberte, Reader’s Digest, undated.
- “Nihilartikel.” World Wide Words, undated.
- “Dord: The Word That Didn’t Exist.” David Mikkelson, Snopes.com, January 4, 2015.
- “Mountweazel (words).” Richard Nordquist, ThoughtCo.com, January 14, 2020.
- “Not a Word.” Henry Alford, New Yorker, August 22, 2005.
- “Welcome to Argleton, the Town that Doesn’t Exist.” Leo Hickman, The Guardian, November 3, 2009.
- “Copying Maps Costs AA £20m.” Andrew Clark, The Guardian, March 6, 2001.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on April 25, 2020:
Rupert, thanks for sharing. Apart from the trap to catch the copy cats, I am not in a position to express an opinion that could carry little or no weigh. We who are learned in any field knows that coping other peoples or authors words without crediting them is stealing. In an examination, such works carry no mark at all. "Out of point. You have just copy" is a remark made by my class teacher while inclass 4 in primary school. He assigned some words to us pupils to make sentences with. I just copy word by word from the dictionary. I never did that again. Thanks again.