Mountweazels, dictionaries and esquivalience

In preparation for teaching  this term, I was perusing Lieber (2010), which is a pretty readable introduction to the key topics in Morphology. One thing that is different about this book from others, however, is the author’s decision to include a discussion about dictionaries, cautioning students not to immediately rush to the OED when they want to know if xyz is ‘really a word’. One reason for caution is the presence in dictionaries of mountweazels. I had never come across these before, and had no idea what they were. Apparently, a mountweazel is a phony word that gets inserted into a dictionary in order that its authors/publishers can identify lexicographic piracy, i.e. in order to ascertain whether someone has plagiarised previous work, the author(s) of a particular dictionary make up a word and a definition, shove it in, and wait to see if the author(s) of subsequent dictionaries include this imposter. The term comes from a false entry for Lillian Virgina Mountweazel in the New Columbia Encyclopedia, according to Lieber (2010). The term mountweazel is thus a mountweazel in its own right!

One example of such a word is esquivalience, which was introduced by the authors of the New Oxford American Dictionary (2001) and defined as ‘the wilful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities’ (Lieber, 2010:29). Although it was ‘out-ed’ as a fake word in this New Yorker article from 2005, esquivalience has since taken on a life of its own, with many thousands of hits on Google. There are two things to take away from this: 1. Don’t always trust lexicographers (I wonder if there are any mountweazels in the Scrabble dictionary?!) and 2. new vocabulary items can become widespread via media that are perceived to have high status and authority.

Here are a few more mountweazels for your enjoyment (from the same New Oxford American Dictionary, and quoted from the article linked above):

earth loop—n. Electrical British term for GROUND LOOP.
EGD—n. a technology or system that integrates a computer display with a pair of eyeglasses . . . abbreviation of eyeglass display.
electrofish—v. [trans.] fish (a stretch of water) using electrocution or a weak electric field.
ELSS—abbr. extravehicular life support system.
esquivalience—n. the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities . . . late 19th cent.: perhaps from French esquiver, “dodge, slink away.”
eurocreep—n. informal the gradual acceptance of the euro in European Union countries that have not yet officially adopted it as their national currency.

Lieber, Rochelle. 2010. Introducing Morphology. Cambridge: CUP.

Respite from Facebook

A number of you have asked me why I have given up Facebook for 2013, so here are a few brief thoughts.

1. It’s addictive

I began to realise I was regularly spending more time checking Facebook per day than I did i) spending time with my husband, ii) working on my PhD and iii) praying. Because technology is such a huge part of all our lives now, it’s so easy to leave Facebook open hovering in the background. It had started to accompany my life in almost everything I did. I figured this could mean I was on the road to addiction, so decided to take a break.

2. It had become a medium between me and reality

What I mean by this is that I started to think in terms of status updates and photos to upload. Things almost only seemed ‘real’ if they had been uploaded to Facebook. I didn’t like that. I want life to be ‘real’ without being virtual!

3. It encourages us to post short, immediate responses to events or feelings without reflection

While this was all ok back in the day when status updates used to be about going to the shops, I’ve increasingly found this to be the most frustrating thing about the site. Most topics, particularly of a political or theological nature, deserve more than a quick ranty status update (I count myself among the guilty here). In addition, commenting on someone’s wall can turn into a 150-comment-long thread where multiple people misunderstand each other and the nature of the discussion. This doesn’t seem like constructive debate to me. Unlike on blogs dedicated to particular topics, people don’t come to Facebook with debate in mind. Often (though by no means always) this means comments do not engage with the topic in hand in a constructive way. I always find myself wanting to contribute, which inevitably leads to more confusion and misunderstanding and the need to clarify things.

4. It clutters my brain

I’ve found that I go to sleep whizzing and whirring with everyone’s views on every topic under the sun, and I can’t think straight. Life seems hectic, fast and cluttered when I use Facebook every day. I long to slow down.

5. It can be a superficial way of keeping in contact

It’s nice to have updates from friends and family, but I find that, if one of my friends is active publicly on Facebook (i.e. not via a private message), I don’t bother getting in touch with them personally.

However, I am aware that there are many positive aspects about Facebook. I miss people posting articles which I find interesting, hilarious status updates, and so on. So I’m reluctant to give it up for good. I just want to experience again what it was like pre-2005 before everyone’s lives were recorded on their ‘timelines’.

Things I do more of while having a Facebook break: writing letters, sending texts to friends, reading novels, spending more time with God, cleaning (yes, really!), writing in my diary, thinking, noticing the beauty of nature …

For a much more lucid post on the problems of Facebook, see Jonathan Lipps’ excellent summary here. See you in 2014!

(If you’re reading this via Facebook, it’s because my blog automatically updates my profile. You can link anything to Facebook these days.)