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An Urban Legend That Happens To Be True!

By J. Mark Soveign    2/25/08

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dord.jpg

Ghost Words - Legend Or True?

Certain words appear in the dictionary and later quietly disappear forever.  These are the little known "Ghost Words".  A ghost word is a word that has been published in a dictionary, or has been adopted as genuine, as the result of misinterpretation or a typographical error.

Walter Skeat coined the term in 1886 when he wrote about the problems of compiling a dictionary.  He described them as “words which had never any real existence, being mere coinages due to the blunders of printers or scribes, or to the perfervid imaginations of ignorant or blundering editors”.

Ghost words are uncommon, the result of errors made by authors, typists, editors, and printers, and they rarely ever become part of the language.  An example of a long lasting ghost word is 'dord' (meaning density) which can be found in the 1934 Merriam Webster Dictionary.  "Dord" began life as an error made in transcribing a card that read: 'D or d, meaning a capital D or small 'd' - for 'density.'   The typesetter just pushed the two letters together on the either side of the "o and r" resulting in in "dord".

Printed in the Merriam Webster dictionaries, this ghost word came to be in the 1934 edition and when finally discoverd removed from future editions never to be seen again.  Some ghost words can be propagated and live on.  This happens when dictionary writers copy entries from one to another without looking for citations.

The ghost word "pornial", (mistaken for 'primal') appeared first in the Century Dictionary and then was later copied into the Funk & Wagnalls dictionary.  The New Oxford American Dictionary contains a recently made-up word, but this was no typesetter's error.  Here it is:

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

"Esquivalience" is what is known in publishing as a "fictious entry".  They are used as copyright infringement traps and are actually quite clever. 

Another word for "ficticious entry" is "Mountweazel".  This word is derived from the story of Lillian Virginia Mountweazel who is a fictional character and a copyright trap inserted into the 1975 New Columbia Encyclopedia.  Her biography indicates she lived from 1942 to 1973, and "was a U.S. fountain designer and photographer, best known for her collection of photos of rural American mailboxes, Flags Up!."  According to the fictional biography, she was born in Bangs, Ohio, and died in an explosion while on assignment for Combustibles magazine.

“It was an old tradition in encyclopedias to put in a fake entry to protect your copyright,” Richard Steins, who was one of New Columbia’s editors, said. “If someone copied Lillian, then we’d know they’d stolen from us.”  It is a humours way to  protect your intellectual property.

The case of the disappearing streets that never were:

Fake dictionary entries are usually pretty innocuous: you have to look these things up in order to find them, and chances are you’re not looking up something that doesn’t exist.  Moreover you have little to lose when you run into them, but fake streets can be a little different.  There have been a number of reports and anecdotes about copyright traps in maps.  Many people think that copyright traps are urban legends; and map publishers themselves “officially” deny that copyright traps exist in their maps.

It turns out the sometimes an Urban Legend is not a legend, but true and almost nobody believes it!


Here is a quote from the Straight Dope Website:  You can view the story at this link:  http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a4_165.html


"Dear Cecil:

Is it true that, as my father says, companies that produced maps (Rand McNally, etc.) make up some little bitty towns and dot them around their map design so they can tell if anyone copies it? Has anyone ever gotten lost trying to find one of those made-up towns? --Susan Owen, College Station, Texas

Dear Susan:

You are talking about "copyright traps."  They are devious.  They exist.  In a world of high-level conspiracies that are completely imaginary, it's a relief to discover one that's not.

For the record, the folks at Rand McNally swear on a stack of road atlases that they would never use copyright traps. However, they admit a small regional map company called Champion they bought a while back did put a copyright trap into a map on at least one occasion. The trap consisted of a nonexistent street stuck into a map of a medium-sized city in New York state--a fact that was gleefully revealed on a network news show.

On investigating, Rand McNally found some smart-aleck cartographer (and you know what a wild and crazy bunch they are) had gone ahead and done the wicked deed on his own. Whether the guy committed other cartographic sabotage I don't know. But the possibility of additional fakery does exist--and may for a while, since checking every detail of a map is a huge job. Not that I'd get into a panic about it, but on your next road trip you might want to bring a flashlight just in case."

 

 

 


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