Esquivalience and Other Mountweazels

The August 29th issue of The New Yorker contains an article by Henry Alford in the Talk of the Town section about esquivalience and other mountweazels. Esquivalience? Mountweazel? Surely those aren’t words to be found in a dictionary?

Well, it seems the first is in a dictionary and the second appears in an encyclopedia. The 2nd edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary defines the first as:

"esquivalience—n. the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities ... late 19th cent.; perhaps from the French esquiver, ‘dodge, slink away.’"

And Mountweazel appears in the 1975 edition of the New Columbia Encyclopedia has this to say about a certain Lillian Mountweazel:

"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."

That last bit about Combustibles magazine is the give away, for neither Mountweazel nor esquivalience exist outside those two publications. They are what is known in the publishing business as "copyright traps." On occasion, publishers of reference material will deliberately insert false information. If the information turns up in another source, the publisher knows that it was copied from them. They can then look more closely to determine if there are copyright violations in that or other entries. Erin McKean, editor-in-chief of the New Oxford American (and in full disclosure my editor for Word Myths) describes the practice as being "like tagging and releasing giant turtles" to see when and where they turn up again.

While this is a practice among some editors of reference works, copyright traps are generally of limited value as Fred Worth, author of a number of compilations of trivia, found out. According to www.snopes.com, in one of his works he inserted the "fact" that the first name of the TV detective Columbo was Philip. (Columbo’s first name was never mentioned on the show, becoming something of a running joke.) The game Trivial Pursuit, which was immensely popular in the 1980s, included this "fact." Worth sued the makers of the game, but lost. One cannot copyright facts, only the presentation of facts. The court ruled that a question and answer in a game was quite different from a trivia book. Simply repeating information that is part of a copyright trap is not, in and of itself, a copyright violation.

But esquivalience may have turned up one instance of, if not copyright violation, then sloppy research. According to the New Yorker article, the web site Dictionary.com included the word, but credited it Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary of English, which is published by the same group that produces Dictionary.com. Don’t bother to search Dictionary.com for the word now; it has been removed, although Onelook.com (a much superior dictionary web site) still has a ghost link to where the entry in Dictionary.com where the word once was.

Esquivalience is not the first "ghost word" to appear in a dictionary. Perhaps the most famous is dord, although that one was created by accident and not deliberately as a copyright trap. In the 1934 2nd edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary, dord appears as a word, defined as density. The entry should read "D or d," as it was intended as an abbreviation. But somewhere in the editorial process, someone omitted the spaces and gave it a pronunciation. The error was discovered in 1939 and printings of the dictionary from that date on corrected the error, but dord continued to appear in other, less well researched, dictionaries for years afterwards.

Esquivalience may be a ghost word, destined for oblivion, or at best to life as a lexicographic footnote, like dord. But there may be some hope for Mountweazel. In his New Yorker article, Alford uses the word as a noun meaning copyright trap, "six potential Mountweazels emerged." Keep your eyes open and perhaps others will be picking up the usage.

And in case you’re wondering, there are no mountweazels in Wordorigins.org. If one appears, it’s an error not a trap.

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