The 1943 edition of Webster’s Twentieth Century Dictionary contains the following definition:
jungftak, n.–a Persian bird, the male of which had only one wing, on the right side, and the female only one wing, on the left side; instead of the missing wings, the male had a hook of bone, and the female an eyelet of bone, and it was by uniting hook and eye that they were enabled to fly, — each, when alone, had to remain on the ground.
Wow. What a wonderful definition. Who knew there was such a bird?
Actually, there isn’t. It’s an example of a mountweazel, an entirely fabricated definition. But why would Webster’s dictionary, a highly professional and well-respected tome, include it? Well, because dictionaries, like encyclopedias and maps, contain some bogus data.
Why would they do that? To protect their copyrights. A lot of effort goes into the production of these works, and they can be simple to copy. However, if the dictionary contains some definitions that are made up, it’s easy to catch copyright violators.
The source of the term mountweazel is from this bogus biographical entry in the fourth edition of the New Columbia Encyclopedia (1975).
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.
Although Ms. Mountweazel did not exist, a new word found its way into the English language.
In addition to mountweazels, this language of ours abounds with opportunities for fun. For example,
Named after Rev. William Spooner, who became infamous for inadvertently switching the beginning sounds of words to hilarious effect. One of Rev. Spooner’s most famous spoonerisms was when he attended church and found someone sitting in his usual seat:
“Someone is occupewing my pie. Please sew me to another sheet.” (“Someone is occupying my pew. Please show me to another seat.”)
Named after the character “Mrs. Malaprop” from the 1775 play The Rivals, malapropisms replace a word with an incorrect homonym or close relative, again to hilarious effect. One example:
“He is the very pineapple of politeness!” (“He is the very pinnacle of politeness.”)
We had a friend who used malapropisms frequently, but unintentionally. She once told me she had a doctor’s appointment. “Is everything okay?” I asked. “Oh, yes. I just have to have my annual milligram.” Our conversations were often bewildering, but always fun.
- Tom Swifties
A Tom Swifty is a play on words using a quotation usually ascribed to Tom and followed by an adverb. Here’s an example:
“I need a pencil sharpener,” Tom said bluntly.
Some of my favorite Tom Swifties have been offered here on TKZ.
Okay, TKZ sothers and bristers: It’s your turn. What’s your favorite word? Do you have a favorite play on words or fabricated definition you’d like to share? I bet you’ll come up with some real wise prinners.