Truth but not as we know it

Facts maam No-WMDs Mountweazel

“NOW, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life…” said Mr Gradgrind at the opening of Hard Times by Charles Dickens.

But what exactly are facts? The merits or otherwise of a dictionary definition can both help and hinder; help because definition can set limits and create structure for a discussion; hinder for the same reasons.

The most famous questioner of defining truth must be Pontius Pilate, quoted in the Gospel of St John, 18:38 ‘Quid est veritas?’ He wasn’t the only Roman prepared to cast a stone in that glass house. In his Meditations, emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote: ‘Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.’ And in the modern era, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote: ‘There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact,’ putting these words in the mouth of his most famous character in ‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery’.

The OED primarily defines ‘truth’ as ‘the true facts about something, rather than the things that have been invented or guessed’ and ‘the quality or state of being based on fact’.

But what if the facts are anything but true? A pedant might claim that this means they’re not facts but this is mere sophistry for there are plenty of charlatans offering facts that are patently false. Let’s consider The Da Vinci Code, that notoriously bad—if best-selling—fiction based on a sensationalist theory but claimed by its author, Dan Brown, to be historical truth. The real truth of Brown’s effort was a tissue of unattributed ideas from other authors amounting to plagiarism. Far more honest would be to offer us fiction as plausible truth with all the trappings of true scholarship, like ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ by Jorge Luis Borges, or the novels of Umberto Eco. Or we might sample beautiful fantasy like Dinotopia by author-illustrator James Gurney, which only the most credulous of readers (i.e. Sarah Palin) could mistake for truth.

But what about a lie offered by that most sacrosanct of language authorities, the dictionary? Not a mistaken entry based on a misreading of historical documents (e.g. the word ‘Dord’ appeared in the 1934 edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary as a result of a typographical error for the genuine entry of ‘D or d’) or the description of a discredited theory (e.g. phlogiston or vitalism or Iraq WMDs). No, I’m talking about lexicographers deliberately misleading their readership.

These fake words—known by terms such as ‘paper towns’ or ‘ghost words,’ have long been inserted into reputable tomes such as encyclopaedias, atlases and even dictionaries. Then in 2005, journalist Henry Alford, writing for The New Yorker, coined a new term: the Mountweazel, of which more anon.

What would prompt any sober researcher to throw aside scholastic caution and plunge into the murky waters of fiction? One possibility is to set a trap for would-be Dan Browns: the potential plagiarists and forgers. Better known examples include: a fictitious member of the German parliament called Jakob Maria Mierscheid; an entry in the Music Lovers’ Encyclopedia of 1903, ‘zzxjoanw,’ allegedly a Māori word for drum; an entry in the New Oxford American Dictionary of 2005 for the made-up word ‘esquivalience’ as a classic copyright trap; and the remarkable word ‘Mountweazel’ invented for the 1975 New Columbia Encyclopedia.

Lillian Virginia Mountweazel was supposedly born in 1942, a fountain designer and photographer from Ohio who perished in 1973 in an explosion, on assignment for Combustible magazine. The name of that fake publication and the ‘fact’ that she was born in Bangs, Ohio should have been enough to alert the more astute readers they were being teased.

During the 1980s a publication already a decade old, The Trivia Encyclopedia, enjoyed a renewed wave of popularity thanks to the success of Trivial Pursuit, invented by Canadian journalists Chris Haney and Scott Abbott. The encyclopedia had inserted some mischievous false information about the first name of Lieutenant Columbo, a TV detective played by Peter Falk in the 1970s, asserting that his name was Phillip, despite the fact that the character’s name was never mentioned in the entire series. When a new edition of Trivial Pursuit included this false fact as a clue answer, the editor of the encyclopedia, Fred Worth, tried to sue the game distributors for breach of copyright for stealing his idea from the book. But intellectual property is a slippery beast. The makers of Trivial Pursuit did not deny they used Worth’s book. They argued that facts are not subject to copyright, even false facts, and the book was one of many sources they used for their research. The judge ruled in their favour and the case was thrown out, and was upheld on appeal. Even though the fact was demonstrably false, it was deemed legitimate by a court of law as the answer to a general knowledge question.

‘Just the facts, ma’am,’ said Sgt. Joe Friday in Dragnet. But he never cross-examined a Miss Mountweazel.

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