Fictitious entry

Fictitious or fake entries are deliberately incorrect entries in reference works such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, maps, and directories. There are more specific terms for particular kinds of fictitious entry, such as Mountweazel, trap street, paper street, paper town, phantom settlement, and nihilartikel.[1]

Fictitious entries are included either as a humorous hoax or as a copyright trap to reveal subsequent plagiarism or copyright infringement.


The neologism Mountweazel was coined by The New Yorker based on a fictitious biographical entry in the 1975 New Columbia Encyclopedia.[2][3] This involved the fountain designer turned photographer, Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, who died in an explosion while on assignment for Combustibles magazine. According to the encyclopedia's editor, it is a tradition for encyclopedias to put a fake entry to trap competitors for plagiarism.[4] The surname came to be associated with all such fictitious entries.[5]

The term nihilartikel, combining the Latin nihil ("nothing") and German Artikel ("article"), is sometimes used.[1]

By including a trivial piece of false information in a larger work, it is easier to demonstrate subsequent plagiarism if the fictitious entry is copied along with other material. An admission of this motive appears in the preface to Chambers' 1964 mathematical tables: "those [errors] that are known to exist form an uncomfortable trap for any would-be plagiarist".[6] Similarly, trap streets may be included in a map, or invented phone numbers in a telephone directory.

Fictitious entries may be used to demonstrate copying, but to prove legal infringement, the material must also be shown to be eligible for copyright (see Feist v. Rural, Fred Worth lawsuit or Nester's Map & Guide Corp. v. Hagstrom Map Co., 796 F.Supp. 729, E.D.N.Y., 1992.)[7]

Official sources

Most listings of the members of the German parliament feature the fictitious politician Jakob Maria Mierscheid, allegedly a member of the parliament since 1979. Among other activities he is reported to have contributed to a major symposium on the equally fictitious stone louse in Frankfurt.[8]

Reference works

Fictitious entries in reference publications often occur in an attempt to catch plagiarism, such as:

  • In August 2005, The New Oxford American Dictionary gained media coverage[2] when it was leaked that the second edition contained at least one fictional entry. This later was determined to be the word "esquivalience", defined as "the wilful avoidance of one's official responsibilities", which had been added to the edition published in 2001.[9] It was intended as a copyright trap, as the text of the book was distributed electronically and thus very easy to copy.
  • David Pogue, author of several books offering tips and tricks for computer users, deliberately placed a bogus tip in one of his books as a way of catching competing writers who were re-publishing information from his works without permission. The fake tip, which purported to make a rabbit appear on the computer screen when certain keys were pressed, did indeed appear in other books shortly after Pogue published it.[10]
  • In addition to the 1975 New Columbia Encyclopedia’s entry on Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, the editors created another fictitious entry on the blind American artist, Robert Dayton.[11] The article claims Dayton experimented “with odor-emitting gases that resemble pungent body odors." His supposed work, known as "Aroma-Art," is presented in a sealed chamber where an audience inhales scented air.[3]


Fictitious entries on maps may be called phantom settlements, trap streets,[12] paper towns, cartographer's follies, or other names. They are intended to help unmask copyright infringements.[13]

  • In 1978, the fictional Ohio towns of Beatosu and Goblu were inserted into that year's official state of Michigan map as nods to the University of Michigan and its traditional rival, The Ohio State University.[14]
  • The fictional town of Agloe, New York, was invented by map makers, but eventually became identified as a real place by its county administration because a building, the Agloe General Store, was erected at its fictional location. The "town" is featured in the novel Paper Towns by John Green and its film adaptation.
  • Mount Richard, a fictitious peak on the continental divide in the United States, appeared on county maps in the early 1970s. It was believed to be the work of a draftsman, Richard Ciacci. The fiction was undiscovered for two years.[14]
  • In the United Kingdom in 2001, the Ordnance Survey (OS) obtained a £20m out-of-court settlement from Automobile Association (the AA) after content from OS maps was reproduced on AA maps.[15] The Ordnance Survey denied that it included "deliberate mistakes" in its maps as copyright traps, claiming the "fingerprints" which identified a copy were stylistic features such as the width of roads.[16]
  • The fictitious English town of Argleton was investigated by Steve Punt in an episode of the BBC Radio 4 programme Punt P.I. The programme concluded that the town's entry may well have originated as a copyright trap.[17]

Trivia books, etc.

  • The Trivia Encyclopedia placed deliberately false information about the first name of TV detective Columbo for copy-trap purposes and then sued Trivial Pursuit (which based some of their questions and answers on the work), without success.

Other examples of copyright infringement that do not fall under the above categories include:

  • In the summer of 2008, the state-owned Slovak Hydrometeorological Institute (Slovak: Slovenský hydrometeorologický ústav, short: SHMÚ) became suspicious that a competing commercial service, the website, was stealing their data. On August 7, 2008, SHMÚ deliberately altered the temperature for Chopok from 9.5 °C to 1 °C. In a short time, the temperature of 1 °C appeared for Chopok at as well.[18]
  • The ANP in the Netherlands once deliberately included a false story about a fire in their radio newscast to see if Radio Veronica takes its news from the ANP. Several hours later, Radio Veronica also aired the story.
  • Google, alleging its search results for a misspelling of tarsorrhaphy started appearing in Bing results partway through the summer of 2010, created fabricated search results where a hundred query terms like "hiybbprqag", "delhipublicschool40 chdjob" and "juegosdeben1ogrande" each returned a link to a single unrelated webpage. Nine of the hundred fraudulent results planted by Google were later observed as the first result for the bogus term on Bing.[19][20][21]

Scrutiny checks

Some publications such as those published by Harvard biologist John Bohannon are used to detect lack of academic scrutiny, editorial oversight, fraud and/or p hacking on the part of authors or their publishers. Trap publications may be used by publishers to immediately reject articles citing them, or by academics to detect journals of ill repute (those that would publish them or works citing them).

Humorous hoaxes

Reference publications

Fictitious entries often occur in reference publications as a prank, or practical joke, in an attempt to be humorous, such as:

  • The German-language Der neue Pauly. Enzyklopaedie der Antike, edited by H. Cancik and H. Schneider, vol. 1 (Stuttgart, 1996, ISBN 3-476-01470-3) includes a fictitious entry now well known amongst classicists: a deadpan description of an entirely fictional Roman sport, apopudobalia, which resembles modern association football.
  • Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography (1887–1889) contains about two hundred fictitious entries.
  • Zzxjoanw was the last entry in Rupert Hughes' Music Lovers' Encyclopedia of 1903, and it continued as an entry in subsequent editions down to the 1950s. It was described as a Māori word for a drum. Later, it was proved to be a hoax (having seemed suspect because Māori does not use the letters J, X or Z).
  • The 1975 New Columbia Encyclopedia contains a fictitious entry on Lillian Virginia Mountweazel (1942–1973).[2] Her biography claims she was a fountain designer and photographer, best known for Flags Up!, a collection of photographs of rural American mailboxes. Supposedly she was born in Bangs, Ohio, and died in an explosion while on assignment for Combustibles magazine. Mountweazel was the subject of an exhibit in Dublin, Ireland, in March 2009 examining her fictitious life and works.[22]
  • The first printing in 1980 of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians contains two fictitious entries: on Guglielmo Baldini, a non-existent Italian composer, and Dag Henrik Esrum-Hellerup, who purportedly composed a small amount of music for flute. Esrum-Hellerup's surname derives from a Danish village and a suburb in Copenhagen. The two entries were removed from later editions, as well as from later printings of the 1980 edition.
  • The German-language medical encyclopedia Pschyrembel Klinisches Wörterbuch features an entry on the Steinlaus (stone louse), a rock-eating animal.[23] The scientific name Petrophaga lorioti implies its origin: a creation of the German humorist Loriot. The Pschyrembel entry was removed in 1996 but, after reader protests, was restored the next year, with an extended section on the role of the stone louse in the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Practical jokes

Fictitious entries occasionally feature in other publications in an attempt to be humorous, such as:


Many publications have included false items and then challenged readers to identify it, including:

  • Australian palaeontologist Tim Flannery's book Astonishing Animals includes one imaginary animal and leaves it up to the reader to distinguish which one it is.
  • The product catalogue for Swedish consumer electronics and hobby articles retailer Teknikmagasinet contains a fictitious product. Finding that product is a contest, Blufftävlingen, in which the best suggestion for another fictitious product from someone who spotted the product gets included in the next issue.[26]
  • Muse, a US magazine for children 10–14, regularly includes a two-page spread containing science and technology news. One of the news stories is false and readers are encouraged to guess which one.
  • Games (a magazine devoted to games and puzzles) used to include a fake advertisement in each issue as one of the magazine's regular games.
  • The book The Golden Turkey Awards describes many bizarre and obscure films. The authors of the work state that one film described by the book is a complete hoax, and they challenge readers to spot the made-up film; the imaginary film was Dog of Norway, which supposedly starred "Muki the Wonder Dog", named after the authors' own dog

Fictitious entries in fiction

Fictitious entries are sometimes plot points in fiction, including:

  • A Fred Saberhagen science fiction short story, "The Annihilation of Angkor Apeiron", in which an encyclopedia article for a star system is a fictitious entry included in the encyclopedia to detect plagiarism, which causes a Berserker ship to end up in an empty star system where it runs out of fuel and ceases to be a threat to humanity.
  • Jorge Luis Borges's short story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" tells of an encyclopedia entry on what turns out to be the imaginary country of Uqbar. This leads the narrator to the equally fantastic region of Tlön, the setting for much of the country's literature.
  • The fictitious entry Agloe, New York, is a key plot point in John Green's 2008 novel Paper Towns and its film adaptation. Paper Towns also references the fictitious entry "Lillian Mountweazel" in the name of the Spiegelman family's dog, Myrna Mountweazel.
  • In the Doctor Who episode "Face the Raven", a hidden community lives in a London alley. Clara Oswald helps the Doctor start the search for that community by searching for any trap streets within the London city limits.

Fictitious entries may be used to demonstrate copying, but to prove legal infringement, the material must also be shown to be eligible for copyright. However, due to the Feist v. Rural, Fred Worth lawsuit where the Supreme Court ruled that "information alone without a minimum of original creativity cannot be protected by copyright", there are very few cases where copyright has been proven. Many of these cases that go to court are dismissed and the affected party is rewarded no compensation.

  • Fred L. Worth, author of The Trivia Encyclopedia, filed a $300 million lawsuit against the distributors of Trivial Pursuit. He claimed that more than a quarter of the questions in the game's Genus Edition had been taken from his books, even his own fictitious entries that he had added to the books to catch anyone who wanted to violate his copyright. However, the case was thrown out by the district court judge as the Trivial Pursuit inventors argued that facts are not protected by copyright.[27][28]
  • In Nester's Map & Guide Corp. v. Hagstrom Map Co.,[29] a New York Corporation which published and sold Official New York Taxi Driver's Guide sued Hagstrom Map Corporation for publishing and selling New York City Taxi & Limousine Drivers Guide, alleging violation of the Copyright Act of 1976. A United States Federal Court found that Nester's selection of addresses involved a sufficient level of creativity to be eligible for copyright and enjoined Hagstrom from copying that portion of the guide. However, the court also found that fictitious entries (in this case, a "trap street") are not themselves protected by copyright.
  • In Alexandria Drafting Co. v. Andrew H. Amsterdam dba Franklin Maps, Alexandria Drafting Corporation filed suit against Franklin Maps alleging that Franklin Maps had violated the Copyright Act of 1976 by copying their map books. However, this case was dismissed although the judge cited that there was a single instance of original copyright, but this was not sufficient evidence to support copyright infringement. Additionally the judge cited Nester's Map & Guide Corp. v. Hagstrom Map Co. as previous case law to support that "fictitious names may not be copyrighted" and "the existence, or non-existence, of a road is a non-copyrightable fact."
  • In one particular case, in 2001 The Automobile Association in the United Kingdom agreed to settle a case for £20,000,000 when it was caught copying Ordnance Survey maps. However, in this copyright infringement case there was no instance of a purposeful copyright trap. Instead, the prosecution sued for specific stylistic choices, such as the width and style of the roads.

Simple errors

Often there will be errors in maps, dictionaries, and other publications, that are not deliberate and thus are not fictitious entries. For example, within dictionaries there are such mistakes known as ghost words, "words which have no real existence [...] being mere coinages due to the blunders of printers or scribes, or to the perfervid imaginations of ignorant or blundering editors."[30]

See also



  1. "Nihilartikel". World Wide Words. Retrieved April 23, 2014.
  2. Henry Alford, "Not a Word", The New Yorker August 29, 2005 (accessed August 29, 2013).
  3. The New Columbia encyclopedia. Harris, William H., 1927-, Levey, Judith S., 1936-, Columbia University. (4th ed.). New York: Columbia University Press. 1975. ISBN 0231035721. OCLC 1103123.CS1 maint: others (link)
  4. Burridge, Kate; Bergs, Alexander (November 3, 2016). Understanding Language Change. Routledge. ISBN 9781315462998.
  5. Horne, Alex (January 14, 2010). Wordwatching: Breaking into the Dictionary: It's His Word Against Theirs. Random House. ISBN 9780753520444.
  6. L. J. Comrie, Chambers's Shorter Six-Figure Mathematical Tables, Edinburgh: W. & R. Chambers, 1964, p. vi.
  7. Fred Greguras, U.S. Legal Protection for Databases, Presentation at the Technology Licensing Forum September 25, 1996. Archived March 1, 2005 on the Internet Archive.
  8. phantom of the Bundestag|publisher=The Economist|date=2014-12-10
  9. Lieber, Rochelle (September 24, 2015). Introducing Morphology. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781316425268.
  11. "'Glitch of the Pentagon': There's a reason you might not have heard of this monster". Washington Post. Retrieved July 25, 2019.
  12. SA Mathieson, "A sidestep in the right direction", The Guardian, May 11, 2006.
  13. Gizmodo: "Fake places that exist to catch copycats"
  14. Monmonier, Mark (1996). How to Lie with Maps (2nd. ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 50–51. ISBN 0-226-53421-9.
  15. "Centrica and Ordnance Survey settle AA copyright case", March 5, 2001.
  16. Andrew Clark (March 6, 2001). "Copying maps costs AA £20m". The Guardian. Retrieved April 23, 2014.
  17. Punt PI, BBC Radio 4, September 18, 2010
  18. SHMÚ suspicious that is stealing their data News portal (in Slovak)
  19. Pogue, Glenn (February 2, 2011). "On Google's Bing Sting". The New York Times.
  20. "Bing Copying Google? Bing Accused Of Stealing Search Results". The Age. Australia. Retrieved November 25, 2012.
  21. ""Hiybbprqag?" How Google Tripped Up Microsoft — Tech Talk". CBS News. February 2, 2011. Archived from the original on February 4, 2011. Retrieved November 25, 2012.
  22. "The Life and Times of Lillian Virginia Mountweazel", Aidan Dunne, The Irish Times, March 20, 2009. Retrieved March 27 2009  (subscription may be required or content may be available in libraries)
  23. The word: Copyright trap New Scientist October 21, 2006
  24. See, e.g., "All-Time Letterwinners" (PDF). Georgia Tech Football 2016 Media Guide. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. p. 136. Retrieved March 24, 2017.
  25. See, e.g., "Tech Letterwinners" (PDF). Georgia Tech Basketball 2016–2017 Information Guide. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. p. 82. Retrieved March 24, 2017.
  26. "Teknikmagasinet – meningen med livet" [Meaning of life] (in Swedish). Teknik magasinet. Archived from the original on April 3, 2008. Retrieved April 23, 2014.
  27. "The Courier - Google News Archive Search". Retrieved October 10, 2018.
  28. The "Philip Columbo" story" Ultimate Columbo Site (Accessed March 7, 2006)
  29. "Nester's Map & Guide Corp. v. Hagstrom Map Co., 796 F. Supp. 729 (E.D.N.Y. 1992)". Justia Law. Retrieved October 10, 2018.
  30. W. W. Skeat, The Transactions of the Philological Society 1885-7 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1885-7) Vol. II, p.351.

Further reading

  • Michael Quinion: "Kelemenopy", World Wide Words (Accessed September 25, 2005)
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