According to The New Yorker, dictionaries and encyclopedias include false entries to help fight plagiarism. If you see another dictionary with the same fake entry as yours, you know they stole your work. Sort of like a digital watermark, only with words.
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.”
Someone found out that the New Oxford American Dictionary’s honeypot word started with ‘e’, they sorted through the ‘e’s and got them to fess up. Pretty interesting.
Like most Gadgetopia posts, this one is evidence of my frequent esquivalience.