Bibliophilia: Wunderkammers & Carbonated Swamp-Warblers

Carbonated Swamp-Warbler
Carbonated Swamp-Warbler

This past week the popular trivia website Mental_Floss ran an article on one of my favorite topics, fictitious entries in encyclopedias and dictionaries. Just what is a fictitious entry? A fictitious entry is an untrue piece of information that‘s inserted into dictionaries and encyclopedias to maintain copyright over the entire book. But I don’t really care for the business or legal sides of fictitious entries; rather I’m concerned with their implications. Dictionaries and encyclopedias are books we look to for indisputable truth; and to know that somewhere in that sea of fact there is an untruth just fills me with excitement. And where some might see this as a sort of mean trick I read it more as an encouragement to wonder.

To digress from books for a moment we can see that fictitious entries actually have a long standing history in intellectual society. In fact, the earliest institutions known to harbor these imposters of truth are institutions we still hold in high regard today; museums. Before we had The Field Museum or The Museum of Science and Industry we had wunderkammers, or cabinets of curiosities.  These were either large cupboards or entire rooms built to display the true wonders of our world. In these cabinets you’d find works of art, “curious items from abroad,” and taxidermied animals. But not all of the items were, well, what they were. For instance, it was popular to display the horn of a narwhal but label it the horn of a unicorn.  But is this purposefully misleading?  Is the purpose of a museum to display undisputed fact? The Museum of Jurassic Technology, a contemporary harkening to wunderkammers, would disagree “In its original sense, the term “museum” meant “a spot dedicated to the Muses, a place where man’s mind could attain a mood of aloofness above everyday affairs.”

Now back to books, specifically reference books. Dictionaries are not read in the same manner one visits a museum.  What I mean by that is when you visit a museum you usually spend time poking around all of the different exhibits, seeing what’s around every corner. When you open a dictionary, it’s a business transaction. You’re there with a specific reason. Wait, how do you spell apricot again? So a fictitious entry in a dictionary stands a far better chance of staying hidden and, more or less, harmless. Encyclopedias on the other hand, they’re made for browsing; and the speculative fingers of a page turner are a hard thing to hide from. Yet whether they’re found or not, are fictitious entries ethical? What if, for instance, you quoted the misinformation or used the made up word in an academic paper?

Fortunately today there are so many different dictionaries and encyclopedias, bound and online, that it is fairly easy to check anything you may find suspect. So if you find yourself on the wrong side of a made up word you really have no one to blame but yourself. Beyond that I also think it’s good to be a little skeptical when it comes to doing research or reading. Skepticism encourages thorough examination and multiple sources; it makes vendors of information accountable for their product. Yet this delineation of information is a contemporary luxury far removed from the days of limited resources and very few experts when fictitious entries had a harder time of being disproved. Back in those times there were only possible fictitious entries.

My favorite possible fictitious entry comes from a book that isn’t trying to hide anything; John James Audubon’s The Birds of America.  Audubon’s book was a mammoth undertaking. Almost a decade in the making The Birds of America sought to be a near complete visual encyclopedia of the birds of North America. Audubon would travel the land, hunt the birds, and then paint his trophy.  When finished with his journey he published his book on what is publisher called “double elephant folio.” The pages were handmade paper 39.5 inches tall by 28.5 inches wide. Visually, The Birds of America is a masterpiece. Even today, The Birds of America is considered such a marvelous book that Drexel University, which houses an original print, holds a daily page-turning where visitors can gather around as a librarian wearing a rubber glove slowly turns the pages and reveals the contents. Obviously, this book isn’t much for hiding.

Audubon’s book had great success within the scientific community as well. With his sharp attention to detail as well as his wide selection of specimen Audubon was able to present the world with intricate images of birds never before seen outside of their local habitats. He was making regional knowledge global. Yet, some scientists were skeptical. A few of the birds on display in Audubon’s book drew specific attention and were thought to be fabrications. The birds in question however were later proven to be species of birds which had existed but were now extinct. But there was still one bird that no one could account for, the Carbonated Swamp-Warbler.

The Carbonated Swamp-Warbler is depicted as a bright yellow bird with brown and black wings. It reminds me somewhat of a golden finch but true bird watchers and ornithologists have labeled it a mere flight of Audubon’s fancy.  Yet no one can prove that it did not exist. This is what I find so fascinating about possible fictitious entries, it allowed experts to create “another one” of something they loved and cared about. Beyond that, it allowed experts and authors to literally create truths and sneak a little bit of playfulness into their otherwise serious subjects. What do you think? Do you believe it is ethical to have fictitious entries in dictionaries and encyclopedias? Who is responsible if a student uses misinformation from one of these sources?  Please leave some comments below so that we can continue our conversation on large bird paintings, displaying unicorn horns, and why it’s fun to be a lying expert.

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