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The Borneo Post offers a Malay urban legend about a confused English-language student who bumps into an English speaker (identifiable as a "white man") at the airport and says, "I'm sorry."

The English speaker replies, "I'm sorry too."

The learner replies, "I'm sorry three."

"What for?"

"I'm sorry five"

The English speaker: "I'm sick of this," and starts to leave.

The learner: "I'm sorry seven."

‘I’m sorry three, five, seven’ tickles delegates during debate on economy
Borneo Post

KUALA LUMPUR: An anecdote from a Malay student trying to master the English language while preparing to further his studies abroad had the delegates in stitches during the debate on the economy at the Umno General Assembly 2013 yesterday.
The delegate from the Federal Territory, Afendi Zahari, said the incident occurred at the airport when the student from the East Coast accidentally bumped into a foreigner and tried to apologise in English.

[via Legends & Rumors]
Categories: Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Sat Dec 28, 2013
Comments (0)
It doesn't seem that the 'fake sign language guy' (Thamsanqa Jantjie) at Mandela's memorial service was a prankster, as some speculated. Instead, it looks like he was a poorly qualified guy who cracked under the pressure and started signing nonsense.

Or perhaps he was communicating with extraterrestrials.

From the BBC:

the man's signing seemed to have no grammatical base and kept repeating sign patterns when it was clear that the speaker was not using repetitive words. UK deaf news blog The Limping Chicken said the sign language interpreter had a "strange repetitive rhythm to his movements", and "the structure of his hand and body movements didn't seem to change no matter what the speaker was saying".

Categories: Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Thu Dec 12, 2013
Comments (0)
I recently received an "Uncommon Goods" catalog in the mail and noticed an item they call the "Imagination Paperweight." It displays an inspiring Albert Einstein quotation: "Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere."

Knowing how many fake Einstein quotations there are floating around, my suspicion was aroused. So I checked and sure enough, this Einstein quotation has been called into question by the few people who have bothered to investigate it (as opposed to mindlessly parroting it).

The Skeptica Esoterica blog notes that it's listed in The Ultimate Quotable Einstein (2010) by Alice Calaprice, but it's in the "Probably Not By Einstein" section.

The quotation appears to have become very popular in the last 10 years. But I can't find any earlier references to it. Nor do any of the people who repeat the quotation mention where or when Einstein said it. So I'll conclude that it must be fake.

However, Einstein did say something very similar. According to, in an interview published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1929 Einstein was asked, "Then you trust more to your imagination than to your knowledge?" And he responded:

I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.

"Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world." That's a good quotation — and real! Uncommon Goods should have put that on their paperweight.
Categories: Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Fri Nov 15, 2013
Comments (1)
From the most recent issue of the International Journal of Lexicography:

one can find highly interesting cases of the 'Eskimo hoax' type in accounts of the history of Polish vocabulary, the one most often found being the statement that there are 30,000 'new words' (and one million technical terms) in Polish that appeared after 1945. This claim is not based on adequate empirical data. Piotr Wierzchon discusses the hoax on pages 178-183 of the book under review [Depozytorium leksykalne jezyka polskiego. Nowe fotomaterialy z lat 1901-2010.]

Unfortunately I don't have access to the book being reviewed. Nor do I know Polish, so I couldn't read it even if I did. So that's all I can find out about this Polish vocabulary hoax. (Though it sounds more like an urban legend than a hoax.) Googling '30,000 new words in Polish since 1945' doesn't turn up anything helpful either.

However, a January 2013 article in The Independent notes that Polish is now the second most widely spoken language in England and Wales, after English itself. And that this Polish-English contact is having a large influence on the Polish language, especially Polish business speak, which is adopting numerous English terms:

Polish translator Anna Lycett, 25, from Leeds said that English office terminology is being adopted. "Mostly English is incorporated into Polish in business speak, so terminology used in the office would be English rather than Polish: for example you would go to a 'briefing' rather than use the Polish word for it," she told the Huffington Post.

She added: "Marketing is often referred to as 'marketing' and you would also say 'IT' rather than the 'technologia informacyjna' or 'TI' either. People tend to use these English words whether they fully understand what they mean in English or not. PR is also Polonised so it is pronounced like the English 'PR' but spelt in Polish to reflect the pronunciation 'piar'.

Based on this, I would imagine that it must be true that there have been many new words added to Polish since 1945. But apparently not 30,000 new words (and 1 million technical terms).
Categories: Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Tue Nov 05, 2013
Comments (2)
A brief news-wire story that ran in many American papers in late 1940 claimed that due to an error in an English-Greek language book, the people of Cyprus thought that 'Goodbye' was the word used to say 'Hello' in English. Which must have caused some confusion to English-speaking tourists on the island.

Here's the story as it appeared in the Milwaukee Journal - Dec 17, 1940:

Since no source was offered for this claim, and I can't find any other documentation of such a mixup, I have a hard time believing it was true. Surely any English teacher would have known enough to catch such an error, and wouldn't have taught it to students simply because it was in a textbook.

This must have been an early variant of the "mixed-up phrase book" urban legend, in which a foreign-language phrase book offers outrageously incorrect translations.

Monty Python has a well-known skit based on this idea.

And back in 2003, a story circulated online claiming that a prankster had inserted incorrect translations into a Japanese-English phrase book, causing numerous Japanese tourists in America, in their attempts to find a restroom, to approach strangers and say, "May I caress your buttocks."

The bogus Japanese-English phrase book story actually originated as a satirical piece in the Weekly World News. But this info wasn't included in the versions of the story that circulated online.
Categories: Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Tue Oct 08, 2013
Comments (1)
Prize-winning Australian poet Andrew Slattery (winner, most recently, of the Cardiff International Poetry Competition, that came with a jackpot of £5000) is being stripped of many of his prizes after judges discovered that most of his poetry consists of lines lifted from the works of other poets. For instance, his poem Ransom, which won him the Josephine Ulrick Poetry Prize (and potentially $10,000 — he hadn't received the money yet) was a stitched-together version of "50-odd poets' work, some of them famous, such as Americans Charles Simic and Robert Bly, and one Australian, Chris Andrews."

Slattery now explains that he intended his poems to be a form of "collage poetry" written in the "cento format." Apparently this is a kind of poetry that's a patchwork of lines from other poems. He just failed to mention this fact to anyone. [Sydney Morning Herald]
Categories: Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Fri Sep 13, 2013
Comments (1)
A fairly old meme, but it was new to me. Image via

Categories: Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Wed Aug 28, 2013
Comments (3)
The New York Department of State recently ruled that it's illegal to use corporate honorifics if you're not actually part of a corporation. Sounds logical, unless you're a real estate agent. Because it's long been the practice for real estate agents to use fancy titles like "Senior Executive Vice President" or "Managing Director," even though technically they work as independent contractors for firms. They're not on the staff.

Now all their business cards have to go in the shredder, or they face a fine of $1000 per violation. Naturally, they're not taking this change lying down. Instead, they're busy inventing new titles for themselves, such as Nikki Field who now calls herself a "Senior Global Real Estate Adviser." []

Of course, the love of important-sounding titles is nothing new. Here's a relevant passage from Paul Tabori's The Natural Science of Stupidity (1959):

The title the rulers of Burma wore proudly was "The King of Kings Whom all other princes obey; Regulator of the Seasons; the Almighty Director of Ebb and Flow; the Younger Brother of the Sun; the Proprietor of the Twenty Four Umbrellas."

The Malayan princes of Sumatra called themselves "The Master of the Universe Whose Body shines like the Sun; whom God hath created as perfect as the Full Moon; Whose Eyes shine like the North Star; Who, rising, casts a shadow upon His whole domain; Whose Feet smell sweetly" — and so on.…

The Shah of Persia, the Great Turk, or the Indian Maharajahs all demanded that their names should be followed by a flowery trail of pompous titles.

The mania for titles was Asia's gift to Europe. It flourished most luxuriantly in the courts of the German princelings. Strangely enough, it wasn't exactly the person of the ruler that promoted this obsessional fever; it fed most richly on the vanity of the lower nobility and the burghers. The ruling princes were satisfied with the title of Durchlaucht (Serene Highness), though later this developed into the more impressive Allerdurchlauchtigster (Most Serene Highness). Kings demanded in addition to be addressed as Grossmächtigster (Most All Powerful), which was somewhat tautological.

A Book of Titles (Titularbuch) published in the reign of the Hapsburg Emperor Leopold II declared that the Emperor of Austria was also entitled to be called Unüberwindlichster (Most Unconquerable). His Imperial Majesty enjoyed this title for a brief two years; since he died just before war was declared against revolutionary France he never saw his title made a mockery by the Corsican.

About the middle of the fifteenth century, counts were called Wohlgeboren (Well-born), but they had to wait two centuries before they advanced to Hochgeboren (High-born). Strangely enough, when the two titles were united in Hochwohlgeboren (High-and-well-born), they denoted a lower rank — that of the baron. But if he was an "imperial baron," his title was stretched to the more impressive Reichsfreyhochwohlgeborner (Imperial, free, high and well-born).

By the way, I've decided to change my title. I used to be the Curator of the Museum of Hoaxes. But henceforward my title will be the Senior Most Magnificent and Exalted Curator of the Museum of Hoaxes. At least, that's what it'll say on my résumé.
Categories: Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Mon Aug 19, 2013
Comments (2)
Legend has it that the 19th-century French Romantic poet Gérard de Nerval (1808-1855) had a pet lobster named Thibault that he took on walks in the Palais Royal gardens of Paris, using a blue silk ribbon as a leash. When asked why he did this, he replied

Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog? Or a cat, or a gazelle, or a lion, or any other animal that one chooses to take for a walk? I have a liking for lobsters. They are peaceful, serious creatures. They know the secrets of the sea, they don't bark, and they don't gobble up your monadic privacy like dogs do. And Goethe had an aversion to dogs, and he wasn't mad!

It's an amusing story, but is it true? Did Nerval really take his lobster on walks? Over at Boing Boing, Mark Dery delves into this mystery at length.

First, Dery consulted literary scholars. He discovered that they disagree about the story's veracity. It turns out that the original source of the story was Nerval's friend Théophile Gautier, and one critic, Richard Sieburth, thinks Gautier invented the story as a hoax to "impress the bourgeois." But another scholar, Richard Holmes, thinks the story could be true, noting Nerval had a "well-documented fascination with odd or exotic animals."

So next Dery turned to marine biologists to find out if it would even be physically possible to walk a lobster. The answer, summarized, is that it might be possible, but it wouldn't be easy since a) under ideal conditions a lobster will survive for only 30 or 40 minutes out of water, and b) lobsters aren't designed to walk on land. They can scuttle around, if they're stressed enough, but they don't like doing it. Diane Cowan of the Lobster Conservancy says bluntly, "Taking a lobster for a walk in the park is a cruel and sadistic idea. Please do not even think about it."

And could Nerval even have kept a lobster as a pet at home? To do so would have required "a large tank with relatively cool seawater and it would have needed some kind of aeration." It's unlikely Nerval had any of this.

So the answer to the question of whether Nerval really walked his lobster is that, no, he almost certainly didn't. But Dery offers two other possible explanations for the story (besides the suggestion that Gautier invented it).

Nerval's correspondence reveals that once, during a visit to the coastal town of La Rochelle, he intervened to save a lobster from a fisherman's nets and then took the lobster home with him. Perhaps this was the source of the tale.

Or, perhaps (possibility #2) Nerval came up with the lobster-walking story, but he intended it to be read allegorically. In other words, the lobster that Nerval walked was a symbolic lobster, not a real one.

Nerval, Dery notes, was "a fervent scholar of the occult," and lobsters have special significance in some occult sources, such as Tarot cards. For instance, the Moon card shows a lobster crawling out of a pool onto dry land, up a path guarded by two dogs (or a dog and a wolf) toward the full moon. The lobster, in this setting, could be interpreted as a symbol of the animal self struggling toward enlightenment. So Dery asks:

Was the lobster walk—initially dismissed as symptomatic of Nerval's nuttiness, more recently historicized as anti-bourgeois performance art—an occult transmission, broadcast to anyone with a working set of gnostic antennae? Is Nerval's famous quote a compressed meditation, informed by the Tarot, on the importance of balancing the rationalism of industrial modernity and the repression of bourgeois society with the creative energies of the unconscious? ... Were Nerval's barking, ravening dogs the rough beasts of the id, familiar from the Moon card? Was his "peaceful, serious" lobster a Surrealist reconciliation (perhaps even an alchemical or Kabbalistic synthesis) of the Moon's ruminative intellect with "that which comes up out of the deeps," the unconscious?

An interesting idea. It certainly makes me view the B-52's song "Rock Lobster" in an entirely different light.
Categories: Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Mon Feb 25, 2013
Comments (1)
Matthew Callan has written a great account of Jean Shepherd's 1956 I, Libertine hoax:

The Man Behind The Brilliant Media Hoax Of "I, Libertine"

Shepherd inspired fierce loyalty in his listeners who would tune in to listen to him in the middle of the night. These listeners embraced his term for them, "night people," and under his direction they would execute one of the biggest and most bizarre media hoaxes of the 20th century. The hoax was meant as a strike against their opposite: "day people," that is, against phoniness and squareness—all those 50s words—as well as a joke on New York pretension. In our time of memes, virality, and reality blurring, the hoax Shepherd dreamt up seems extremely modern and prescient in its contours—as does the fact that, eventually, it got out of his control.
Categories: Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Sat Feb 16, 2013
Comments (0)
In July 2012, science writer Jonah Lehrer resigned from The New Yorker under a cloud of shame, after it was revealed that his latest book, Imagine, was full of fabricated quotations. Yesterday, he took what he may have been hoping was a first step toward rehabilitating his public image by giving a confessional talk at a Knight Foundation seminar in Miami.

If image-rehabilitation was his goal, it probably didn't work, because most of the coverage of his talk was snarky and cynical about his intents, especially after reported that he was paid $20,000 for speaking.

As Lehrer spoke, a giant screen behind him showed real-time tweets about the talk, many of which were openly derisive of him, adding a surreal element of public shaming to the event.

source: palewire

During the talk, Lehrer delved into the scientific literature about error, trying to apply what he found to his own errors and figure out how not to do it again. Craig Silverman offers a good response to what he said:

Lehrer went looking for answers in the same places he used to mine for his articles and books — research papers, cognitive science, and in seemingly surprising places, such as the FBI. He drew oversimplified and in some cases incorrect conclusions about what he found. Then he packaged it all into a polished story, and cashed a nice cheque in the process.
It's all too familiar, and worst of all I think Lehrer is completely ignorant of the fact that he fell into his old methods, his old practices, as he worked to try and understand why he did what he did.
Take Lehrer's example of how a car is built to make a noise when you forget to put on your seat belt. This is meant to "force" you to take the proper action. He compared that to his new commitment to always have his work fact-checked, to adhere to his own set of SOPs meant to combat his seemingly inherent desire to cut corners and lie.
It's a false comparison. 
Forcing mechanisms are meant to guide us to make the right decision. They help remind us and usher us away from an unintentional error. They do nothing for someone who consciously chooses to subvert the system.
Lehrer isn't the guy who forgot to put on a seat belt and got into an accident. He's the guy who heard the seat belt reminder dinging and said, "F**k it, that belt is just going to put wrinkles in my shirt."
Lehrer didn't make accidental mistakes. He repeatedly and consciously committed serious ethical transgressions, then lied about them.

Update: The Knight Foundation now says it was a mistake to pay Lehrer so much. That doing so was "tantamount to rewarding people who have violated the basic tenets of journalism." Also, a Forbes reporter managed to contact Lehrer and asked him if he would consider donating the money to charity. Lehrer replied, "I have nothing to say to you."
Categories: Journalism, Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Wed Feb 13, 2013
Comments (0)
I actually find it more surprising that he's still cranking out books at the age of 89 than that he's using a female pen name. Good for him! It's inspiring!

Bills and boon! 'Female' romance author Jessica Blair unmasked as 89-year-old grandfather
Daily Mail

The grandfather from Ampleforth, North Yorkshire, was told his books would need to be printed under a feminine moniker if he wanted them to sell - and so his pseudonym Jessica Blair was born. Bill, 89, has so far written 22 romance novels under the female pen name since his first was published in 1993, with his latest, Silence of the Snow, due out this week.
Categories: Identity/Imposters, Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Mon Feb 11, 2013
Comments (1)
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