Fictitious or fake entries are deliberately incorrect entries in reference works such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, maps, and directories, added by the editors as a copyright trap to reveal subsequent plagiarism or copyright infringement. There are more specific terms for particular kinds of fictitious entry, such as Mountweazel, trap street, paper town, phantom settlement, and nihilartikel.[1]


The neologism Mountweazel was coined by The New Yorker writer Henry Alford in an article that mentioned a fictitious biographical entry intentionally placed as a copyright trap in the 1975 New Columbia Encyclopedia.[2][3] The entry described Lillian Virginia Mountweazel as a fountain designer turned photographer, who died in an explosion while on assignment for Combustibles magazine. Allegedly, she is widely known for her photo-essays of unusual subject matter, including New York City buses, the cemeteries of Paris, and rural American mailboxes. 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][6]

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

Copyright traps

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".[7] 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).[8]

Reference works


Fictitious entries on maps may be called phantom settlements, trap streets,[14] paper towns, cartographer's follies, or other names. They are intended to help reveal copyright infringements.[15] They are not to be confused with paper streets, which are streets which are planned but as of the printing of the map have not yet been built.

Trivia books

Other copyright infringement

Scrutiny checks

See also: List of scholarly publishing stings

Some publications such as those published by Harvard biologist John Bohannon are used to detect lack of academic scrutiny, editorial oversight, fraud, or data dredging 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).

A survey of food tastes by the U.S. Army in the 1970s included "funistrada", "buttered ermal" and "braised trake" to control for inattentive answers.[26]

In 1985, the fictitious town of Ripton, Massachusetts, was "created" in an effort to protest the ignorance of state officials about rural areas. The town received a budget appropriation and several grants before the hoax was revealed.[27]

Humorous hoaxes

Reference publications

Practical jokes

Puzzles and games

Fictitious entries in works of fiction

Legal action

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 lawsuit, where the Supreme Court (USA) 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 and many are dismissed.

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."[37]

See also


  1. ^ a b "Nihilartikel". World Wide Words. Retrieved April 23, 2014.
  2. ^ a b c Henry Alford, "Not a Word", The New Yorker August 29, 2005 (accessed August 29, 2013).
  3. ^ a b Harris, William H.; Levey, Judith S.; Columbia University (1975). The New Columbia encyclopedia (4th ed.). New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231035721. OCLC 1103123.
  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. ^ Garner, Dwight, "In ‘The Liar’s Dictionary,’ People Work on the Definition of Love and Many Other Words", New York Times, January 5, 2021. Review of The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams (Doubleday). Retrieved 2021-01-07.
  7. ^ L. J. Comrie, Chambers's Shorter Six-Figure Mathematical Tables, Edinburgh: W. & R. Chambers, 1964, p. vi.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Lieber, Rochelle (September 24, 2015). Introducing Morphology. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781316425268.
  10. ^ "Repair Radio Episode 4: Interview with David Pogue and Amanda LaGrange - YouTube". Retrieved January 11, 2021.
  11. ^ "'Glitch of the Pentagon': There's a reason you might not have heard of this monster". The Washington Post. Retrieved July 25, 2019.
  12. ^ The word: Copyright trap New Scientist October 21, 2006
  13. ^ Williams, Eleanor (2016). "Chapter 3: Flights of Fancy and Unhinged Birds: Fictitious Entries as Nonsense Literature" (PDF). Unclear Definitions: Investigating Dictionaries' Fictitious Entries through Creative and Critical Writing (PhD). Royal Holloway, University of London.
  14. ^ SA Mathieson, "A sidestep in the right direction", The Guardian, May 11, 2006.
  15. ^ "The Fake Places That Only Exist to Catch Copycat Mapmakers". Gizmodo. April 3, 2015. Retrieved January 11, 2021.
  16. ^ a b Monmonier, Mark (1996). How to Lie with Maps (2nd. ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 50–51. ISBN 0-226-53421-9.
  17. ^ "Centrica and Ordnance Survey settle AA copyright case", March 5, 2001.
  18. ^ Andrew Clark (March 6, 2001). "Copying maps costs AA £20m". The Guardian. Retrieved April 23, 2014.
  19. ^ Punt PI, BBC Radio 4, September 18, 2010
  20. ^ Worth v. Selchow & Righter Company, 827 F.2d 596 (9th Cir. 1987).
  21. ^ SHMÚ suspicious that is stealing their data News portal (in Slovak)
  22. ^ Pogue, Glenn (February 2, 2011). "On Google's Bing Sting". The New York Times.
  23. ^ "Bing Copying Google? Bing Accused Of Stealing Search Results". The Age. Australia. Retrieved November 25, 2012.
  24. ^ ""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.
  25. ^ Kreps, Daniel (June 16, 2019). "Genius Claims Google Stole Lyrics Embedded With Secret Morse Code". Rolling Stone. Retrieved July 2, 2022.
  26. ^ "Funistrada, the Army's 'Ghost Food' - Entropic Memes". Archived from the original on October 1, 2020.
  27. ^ Woodward, Meredith (1985), "Ripton, Mass. - A Real Nowhere Town", Boston Globe, Boston, MA (published July 16, 1985)
  28. ^ "The phantom of the Bundestag". The Economist. December 10, 2014.
  29. ^ "The Life and Times of Lillian Virginia Mountweazel" Archived October 14, 2012, at the Wayback Machine, Aidan Dunne, The Irish Times, March 20, 2009. Retrieved March 27 2009 (subscription may be required or content may be available in libraries)
  30. ^ Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften (2013). Prosopographie der mittelbyzantinischen Zeit Online. De Gruyter. doi:10.1515/pmbz.Chuzpephoros, Eirene, Eustachios, Přzibislav
  31. ^ See, e.g., "All-Time Letterwinners" (PDF). Georgia Tech Football 2016 Media Guide. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. p. 136. Retrieved March 24, 2017.
  32. ^ See, e.g., "Tech Letterwinners" (PDF). Georgia Tech Basketball 2016–2017 Information Guide. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. p. 82. Retrieved March 24, 2017.
  33. ^ "Teknikmagasinet – meningen med livet" [Meaning of life] (in Swedish). Teknik magasinet. Archived from the original on April 3, 2008. Retrieved April 23, 2014.
  34. ^ "The Courier - Google News Archive Search". Retrieved October 10, 2018.
  35. ^ The "Philip Columbo" story" Ultimate Columbo Site (Accessed March 7, 2006)
  36. ^ "Nester's Map & Guide Corp. v. Hagstrom Map Co., 796 F. Supp. 729 (E.D.N.Y. 1992)". Justia Law. Retrieved October 10, 2018.
  37. ^ W. W. Skeat, The Transactions of the Philological Society 1885-7 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1885-7) Vol. II, p.351.

Further reading