Saturday, April 4, 2009

Ceci N’est Pas Un Nihilartikel

Google anything — anything — and you’ll probably get Wikipedia near the top of the stack. If not the pedia then maybe the tionary or some other member of the extended Wikimedia family. But don’t think of the wikis only as compendiums of collected information. No, like a little developing country that eventually turns out its first international pop star — “My name is Uhkla. Now is the time to be rocking.” — the wikis have managed to send a little something back into the non-wiki world: a word-of-the-week. Or at least I think it’s the case.
nihilartikel (NEE-hil-AR-ti-kel) — noun: a deliberately fictitious entry in an encyclopedia or dictionary, which is intended to be more or less quickly recognized as false by the reader.
I love the notion of a nihilartikel, not only because it exists as a means of catching plagiarists and other academic villains but also because any phony article passed off as fact has a chance at taking on a life of its own. Case in point: mountweazel, a word that has come to work as a synonym for nihilartikel as the result of a entry in the 1975 edition of the New Columbia Encyclopedia for the entirely fake Lillian Virginia Mountweazel. The supposed Bangs, Ohio, native was described as being remembered for a photodocumentary on rural American mailboxes titled Flags Up! before dying young in an explosion. Her status as a copyright trap has not prevented her from enough fame to merit her own Wikipedia page. (Of course, nowadays it seems just about anyone gets to have a Wikipedia page.) And then there’s Agloe, New York, which first appeared as a location on a 1930 map as a copyright trap. No such place had ever existed there. Later, when someone set up a general store at this specific spot, they checked the map, saw the game Agloe and named the store after this mystery location, thereby actualizing something that had been intended as a non-entity.

The catch, of course, is that nihilartikel isn’t really a word. For example, it only started appearing recently, by most accounts, and it isn’t included in any dictionaries that I checked. Etymologically speaking, it’s an improbably bastard child of the Latin noun nihil, “nothing,” and the German noun Artikel, “article.” The most obvious reason I can think of these two words being smashed together into one bilingual compound would be to sound more highfalutin than nihilartikel’s literal translation, “nothing article.”

I first learned about nihilartikels during the early days of Wikipedia via its list of unusual articles. It no longer appears there, however, because its page has since grown to became that of all fictitious articles and also because the origins of this particular word for such bogus entries is unclear.

On the subject of where nihilartikel came from, the website World Wide Words states that “There’s some doubt whether this is a genuine German word, or one formed in English as a joke and unknowingly copied.” Wiktionary, however, is a little more exact, saying that the word is “considered a loan word from German [and comes from] from a fictitious March 2004 English-language Wikipedia article, referencing a September 2003 article in the German-language Wikipedia now titled Fingierter Lexikonartikel.” This was my understanding — that the term arose specifically on Wikipedia and may have itself been a nihilartikel, but I hesitate to say that this is true. One on hand, those wikinuts would know if nihilartikel truly did originate on Wikipedia. However, if the original Wikipedia nihilartikel was, in fact, made up but nonetheless managed to end up online, then what’s to keep a similar-minded prankster from inserting a fake etymology for it on Wikipedia’s sister site?

Disputes about its beginnings aside, I hope nihilartikel persists. Considering that English lacks a word for this particular thing, I’d say it’s the best candidate for the position to come along so far. (A near second: trap street, the term for such a device used in maps to deter subsequent cartographers from ripping off the work of the guy who did all the work in the first place.) It certainly has a better chance at full-fledged word status than past nihilartikels, memorable though they might be.
  • zzxjoanw, which Rupert Hughes’s 1903 book The Music Lover’s Encyclopedia defines as a type of Maori drum even though the Maori language lacks the letters “Z,” “J,” and “X.”
  • The New Oxford American Dictionary includes an entry for the non-word esquivalience, “the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities.”
  • And perhaps most famous is dord, “density,” which appeared in the 1934 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary as the misprinted phrase D or d, either of which can be an abbreviation for the word density. Its origins have prompted some to term it a ghost word, which is perhaps an even better name than even nihilartikel
  • The near-unpronounceable apopudobalia appeared in the 1986 book Der neue Pauly, Enzyklopaedie der Antike as a supposed Roman pastime that is essentially soccer.
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