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.