I had meant to post about this weeks ago, but it slipped my mind: the New Yorker ran a Talk of the Town piece about words inserted into reference books as copyright traps:

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.”

So when word leaked out that the recently published second edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary contains a made-up word that starts with the letter “e,” an independent investigator set himself the task of sifting through NOAD’s thirty-one hundred and twenty-eight “e” entries in search of the phony…

It turned out to be esquivalience, “the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities.”

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. She said that Oxford had included it in NOAD’s first edition, in 2001, to protect the copyright of the electronic version of the text that accompanied most copies of the book. “The editors figured, We’re all working really hard, so let’s put in a word that means ‘working really hard.’ Nothing materialized, so they thought, Let’s do the opposite.” An editor named Christine Lindberg came up with “esquivalience.” 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.”

(Thanks for jogging my memory, Jeremy!)


  1. I spotted a map equivalent near my father’s home town in Iowa, which has a population of 500. Three familiar nearby towns have populations in the 800-2500 range. But there’s an additional town on the map I’ve never heard of.

  2. Some years ago, the Wall Street Journal had an article on the world’s oldest company. The Guinness Book of Records had it listed as the second oldest; but the one they said was oldest didn’t seem to exist.
    I wonder if all the minor sports Guinness lists records for actually exist.

  3. It doesn’t exactly applies, since I can’t point to the printed proof, but I think I’ve just encountered a case of disappearing item.
    Tourist office in Oporto, PT has reserved a ticket for me for tonight performance of one of the shows of International Marionette Festival at the Rivoli Theatre. I was there when they placed the call. Sadly, the girl couldn’t say what truppe was playing, so after taking a pleasant break at the nearby pastelaria (excellent almond tart), I decided to inquire myself.
    The ticket office clerk at the theatre told me not only tonight show but the whole Festival was cancelled a month ago.
    What have I reserved?

  4. I’ve also heard for a while that mapping companies protect copyright by inserting fake streets into their maps. For a couple of years I’ve wanted to put together a map that just had the various non-streets on it.

  5. Seems like fake streets would be way more detrimental to the usefulness of a map than would fake words be to the usefulness of a dictionary.

  6. I can’t believe the dord of the reading I have to do. I think I’ll esquivaliate by going out to eat some funistrata.

  7. The UK Ordnance Survey does this too on their maps – a little track with a few houses on it that don’t actually exist. Having said this, I think “esquivalience” is a perfectly cromulent word.

  8. Tom Digby once lived at a place that was made less accessible by a copyright-trap in the Thomas Bros street atlas.
    In Fred Saberhagen’s story “The Annihilation of Alpha Aneirion”, a traveling encyclopedia salesman suckers some evil robots into using the last of their fuel to attack a nonexistent colony.

  9. Back in the 1970s in England I had my first proper job as an assistant editor on the preparation of the new Collins dictionary and I remember that the editorial team put in a couple of obscure words for just this reason. This practice certainly dates back much earlier than this though.
    I can confirm Anton is correct about the Saberhagen story (as I recall, the encyclopedia salesman has to defend himself when he’s put on trial for treason by explaining this whole practice – and I imagine that LanguageHat has read the story).
    But the UK Ordnance Survey don’t put tracks with a few houses on their maps*, it appears to be making a few obscure streams bend a few times or bend at right angles instead of 45 degrees. The reason is the same, other mapmakers can’t pretend that they used their own surveying teams, and I remember OS got substantial damages (several millions) because of this back in 2001/2002.
    *It is said that the London A-Z streetmap publisher does this, but I don’t know if that’s correct or not. Anyone else know?

  10. Yup, I’ve read it. Great discussion, everyone!

  11. Michael Farris says

    A number of years ago I spent an extremely frustrating half hour or so trying to find an address by following a map of Poznań, Poland that showed a street leading from a major road to the street I wanted. Problem was the street didn’t exist and the topography of the area meant that I had to take a long detour and get the address from the opposite direction.
    At the time I put it down to communist-era indifference/incompetence, but now I’m not so sure.

  12. Communist-era maps are an entirely different story, designed to give a pleasing general impression while obscuring or changing any facts that might aid a spy or invader. When I visited Moscow in 1971 I would have been lost without my Baedeker map from the ’20s (which also aided me in trying to locate churches Solzhenitsyn mentioned); the maps we were given for the cities we visited were laughable, not even pretending to be useful for actually navigating your way around the streets. I still remember the joy I felt in the ’90s in finally being able to purchase accurate, up-to-date maps of Saint Petersburg and Moscow.

  13. Michael Farris says

    IME, the communist era maps of Polish cities were pretty accurate and 90’s updates mostly involved numerous name changes of streets, squares and housing estates (for example Red Army Street became St. Martin in Poznań). And this was a 90’s revision.
    I’m mostly inclined to believe it was either an inserted mistake to catch pirates (if there were a market for pirated city maps, that is) or that the street was planned but never built (there was some rerouting of roads in the general vicinity though the non-existant road had clearly never existed).

  14. Oh, I see I forgot to mention the detail that makes it relevant to this post.
    Rivoli Theatre, which the clerk indicated with a star on the map she gave me, wasn’t there. And the street didn’t exist.
    It was 3 turns off the suggested spot, on a Praca with the guy on a horse in the middle.

  15. As for the maps of communist countries, it’s funny, but true: one could buy a much better map of Moscow in, say NYC, than in the city itself. There was a whole first grade highway (well, as first grade highways came in the Soviet Union, that is) all ’round Moscow (some 20 miles outwards from the Moscow Circle Road that used to denote the city’s limes), that did not appear on any map published in the USSR (except the military issue, ofcourse)!
    As for the dictionary stuff – this reminds me of a game we play occasionally, when vodka just doesn’t do it anymore (kidding). We take a dictionary (Dal’s “russian language dictionary” is my personal favorite – lots and lots of arcane words, that one has) and someone reads a word out of it (just the article’s title). All the other players write down their version of what that word might mean (trying to sound as dictionary-like as possible). The first person then collects the notes, and reads them aloud – including the original article (without specifying which is which). Then everyone votes for the article they consider to be the original. Points are then distributed: for those who voted for the correct definition (that is, the one taken from the dictionary) – and for those, whose false definition won the most votes.

  16. I love that game — I know it as “Dictionary.” I’m delighted to hear that Russians play it too!

  17. > I know it as “Dictionary.”
    That’s, I guess, as good a name as any (or better), but, well, it’s too simple for russians (I mean, one shouldn’t expect people, who came up with samovar where a simple electric kettle would do, to give such simple and natural names to their games). The good old pantomime is called in russian, alternatively, either the ‘Crocodile’ game or the ‘Cow’ game. Now neither of these creatures seems to excel in social games, so there you have it.
    We haven’t had a name for this game till now, I guess I’ll be calling it the ‘Giraffe’ game – just for the heck of it.

  18. You can claim that Nikolai Gumilev invented it.

  19. Who, the ‘passionarity’ guy? Wouldn’t have anything to do with him.

  20. He wrote a famous poem called “Жираф.”
    Сегодня, я вижу, особенно грустен твой взгляд
    И руки особенно тонки, колени обняв.
    Послушай: далёко, далёко, на озере Чад
    Изысканный бродит жираф…

  21. Oh. Right, I’ve seen this one. I’m always mixing up between Nikolai the great poet and Lev, his son, the non-orthodox historian.

  22. Please, translations for the non-Russoliterate among us! I too love to play Dictionary though it occurs to me now, I have not done so in a long time. I learned it when I was taking an etymology class in high school, the teacher had us play it as a class to beef up our Latin and Greek roots chops.

  23. > Please, translations for the non-Russoliterate among us!
    Well, I wouldn’t be so presumptious as to try and translate it myself (not into English, anyhow), so I dug up a page with a whole bunch of different translations of this poem:

  24. Wow, what a find! Well done, dimrub.

  25. Communist-era maps are an entirely different story, designed to give a pleasing general impression while obscuring or changing any facts that might aid a spy or invader.
    The Soviet cartographic tradition is alive and well in North Korea (scroll down).

  26. I admit, I was looking for a topic in which this comment will look least offtopic.
    An article on an Israeli Russian-language news site. I wonder just how much of it is bullshit. I would wager it’s somewhere between 70 and 80% (not sure how to measure though). Interestingly, they note the incorrect rendering of a Russian word, but do not assume same thing could have happened in other, ‘exotic’ languages.
    Just venting…

  27. Funny you should bring it up; I just vented about another article based on the same damn book. All these books have a substantial proportion of bullshit, because the authors don’t know what they’re talking about and are more interested in cute “words” than actual facts of language. To them, a good made-up word is better than a boring real one.

  28. I loved the piece on razblyuto. This is a stuff of legend! 🙂

  29. Probably a dead thread, but I just ran across it and I like the anecdote so: I once lived on a non-dedicated street right smack dab in Central Rome, about 150 yards from Campo di Fiori (can’t remember the name, although I think I could walk there). You would frequently see bewildered people with their guidebooks, trying to figure out who the hell we were. I was just beginning to learn Italian in those days, and one day a woman said
    –Scusi signore, come si chiama questa strada?
    Following my usual practice, I responded:
    –Mi dispiace signora, non capisco Italiana.
    As I walked away I thought–hey, wait a minute, I understood her, and I could even have answered the question. But she was gone, vanished, I suppose, down another unmapped street.

  30. No thread is dead until spammers force me to close it, and I like that story!

  31. It happens to me too once in a while: for some reason I am frequently confused for a local, and sometimes get asked for directions. The thing is that most of the time, even if I understand the question and happen to know the answer, I am not fluent enough to explain it without looking extremely silly – look at that foreigner giving directions to a local!

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