Weasel Words

Reading Dictionaries’ False Headwords as Creative Texts

/ by Eley Williams

One of the most famous fictitious entries can be found within the pages of the 1975 The New Columbia Encyclopedia. It sits unobtrusively in the company of the composer Mussorgsky, in the foothills of Mount Olympus and Mount Rushmore:

 

Mountweazel, Lillian Virginia, 1942-1973, American photographer, b. Bangs, Ohio. Turning from fountain design to photography in 1963, Mountweazel produced her celebrated portraits of the South Sierra Miwok in 1964. She was awarded government grants to make a series of photo-essays of unusual subject matter, including New York City buses, the cemeteries of Paris and rural American mailboxes. The last group was exhibited extensively abroad and published as Flags Up! (1972). Mountweazel died at 31 in an explosion while on assignment for Combustibles magazine.

 

Apprehended by Henry Alford for a 2005 article in the New Yorker, a later editor of the Encyclopedia. Richard Steins, confessed that it was a copyright trap: “It was an old tradition in encyclopedias to put in a fake entry [...] If someone copied Lillian, then we’d know they’d stolen from us.”

 

There are clues within this Mountweazel, Lillian Virginia entry that imply that whoever wrote it was aware of a central paradox: That he or she had been commissioned to contrive a piece of specifically fictional writing that would not undermine the “truthfulness” of the Encyclopedia, as a whole. The entry contains narrative and certain stylistic flourishes, such as bathetic tension and a network of wordplay. To successfully evade detection as a copyright trap, its text will have been written precisely in such a way as to neither stand out nor alerts readers’ attention. It is designed to lie buried, or to be seen but not scrutinized. The word as a false, Potemkin town. There is something pleasing in parallels that might be drawn between the very act of consulting a fiction-dictionary and the creative interrogation of a text for any latent literary significance through practical criticism in this way: The “user,” or reader, approaches the text with the expectation that it will disclose meaning.

 

The headword of the Lillian Virginia Mountweazel entry is also indicative of its fictionality and its hoax-credentials. In terms of establishing a deliberately hoax-nodding philology, one might recognize that lill is a transitive verb used to refer to the action of lolling the tongue from the mouth in a cheeky or mocking reproach. Investigating further, in Romany slang, lill also refers to a book; here, once more, the relation of “Lillian” to “her” paratext, beyond which “she” does not exist, is underlined. The associative implications of the name “Lillian” are overwhelmingly related to ideas or concepts of purity. The prefix “lily-” is typically applied to persons or things of exceptional whiteness, fairness, or purity, with the flower often used as symbol of such. “Lillian” is freighted as a name with implications of irreproachability or a lack of imperfection. Such ideas of cleanliness and irreproachability are amplified by the middle name that “she” has been granted, with its resonances of virginity and whiteness. Any advocate of this entry’s creation as metafiction must posit that, by choosing this name, the creator of the “untrue” copyright trap doth protest too much. “Virginia,” as recalled by Livy’s Histories of Ancient Rome, is a character from Roman mythology who was abducted, accused of sedition and finally sacrificed, in order to protect a contract of sanctity.

 

It would be remiss not to mention another, culturally prominent figure who died in the same year as the text’s “Lillian.” With her own surname phonetically a neat example of nominative determinism, the writer Lillian Roxon is credited with, amongst other things, penning the first encyclopedia of rock music, with her Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia, and her work was read avidly in Woodstock-era New York, singled out by the New York Times Review to be “critically concise, extremely knowledgeable, marvelously readable and probably definitive.” Roxon was part of a social circle that included Warhol, Lou Reed, Jim Morrison and Bowie, with Germaine Greer dedicating The Female Eunuch in part to her:

 

This book is dedicated to LILLIAN, who lives with nobody but a colony of New York roaches, whose energy has never failed, despite her anxieties and her asthma and her overweight, who is always interested in everybody, often angry, sometimes bitchy, but always involved. Lillian the abundant, the golden, the eloquent, the well and badly loved; Lillian the beautiful who thinks she is ugly, Lillian the indefatigable who thinks she is always tired.

 

Her Rock Encyclopedia established Roxon as a leading critic and chronicler of rock culture; perhaps the Mountweazel entry, presumably composed at the same time as her early, sudden death in 1973, is another dedication to Roxon, and to her encyclopedic drive and successes in 1970.

 

The use of weazel also has a number of further relevant cultural and linguistic associations, when read as weasel in this context. A weasel-monger is an obsolete phrase for one who hunts rats; the function of a mountweazel is to rat-out any would-be pirates, and also the mountweazel-mindful user of a dictionary or encyclopedia must be vigilant, in order to “rat-out” any suspect entries. Similarly, weaseling-out implies cunning extrapolation of an object, opinion or reaction; the concept of this fictional insertion, characterized by such associations, is compelling.

 

As well as sneakiness, weasels are also linked with bearing false testimony. The mythological figure of Galanthis is transformed into a weasel because of a lie she told. To continue with the writer’s use of a word that recalls weasel, given “her” stint in Paris, the fact that the French for weasel is belette is perhaps a playful phonic spin on belles-lettres, “fine writing,” alluding to all literary works valued for their aesthetic qualities and originality. A more certain assertion is that the allusion to weasels in the name Mountweazel evokes the idiom weasel words, used to describe statements that are apparently meaningful or deliberately ambiguous, so as to obfuscate any real clarity of expression. Weasel words, then, are insincere statements. This expression comes from the longstanding folkloric belief that weasels, despite the fact that they do not have the appropriate musculature to accomplish such a feat, were able to suck the “meat” out of an egg, while leaving the shell intact, hence weasel-words being those which present empty, hollow, meaningless claims. Add to this that to catch a weasel asleep is an American idiom implying “impossibility” (as in, the impossibility of discovering a constantly vigilant person off their guard), the weasel, as an image and symbol, both linguistic and culturally, implies attentiveness, effective within the proposed metafiction of the Encyclopedia entry, as it implies the literal untruth of the entry as a biography of a real person, while also illustrating the fact that the entry was created in order to catch out inattentive copyright thieves.

 

The creativity involved in seeking to prove a metafiction’s credentials, especially when those attempts are at their most tenuous, complements the figure of a mountweazel-writer who also, by dint of their occupation, must work saturated by associations and cross-references, attributions and source-texts that must be evaluated as per their veracity or relevance to the task at hand. By attempting a close reading of this kind, one submits a performance as well as a work of critical engagement with the dictionary’s entry as a piece of fiction.

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Eley Williams

is a writer and lecturer based in Ealing. A poetry pamphlet Frit (Sad Press) is available as well as a collection of stories Attrib. and other stories (Influx Press), the latter listed among Best Books of 2017 by The GuardianThe Telegraph and The New Statesman and chosen by Ali Smith as one of 2017's best debut fiction at the Cambridge Literary Festival.