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British papers have been reporting details of a literary hoax. The characters involved aren't that well known (at least to me), but the punchline is kind of amusing.

Two years ago A.N. Wilson, biographer of poet laureate Sir John Betjeman, found a love letter written by the poet. Or, at least, he thought he had. Turns out the letter must have been deliberately planted to embarrass him because a journalist found a coded message inside of it. The Guardian reports:
The telltale sign that the letter is a joke is that the capital letters at the start of each sentence spell out "A N Wilson is a shit". A journalist drew the biographer's attention to the coded message last week, and after rereading the letter he admitted that it was a hoax. "Of course I saw the funny side - I laughed about it a lot when I found out," Wilson told the Guardian yesterday. "It is quite childish of somebody and I have absolutely no interest in who wrote it."
Here's the love letter, with the code highlighted:
Darling Honor,
I loved yesterday. All day, I've thought of nothing else. No other love I've had means so much. Was it just an aberration on your part, or will you meet me at Mrs Holmes's again - say on Saturday? I won't be able to sleep until I have your answer.
Love has given me a miss for so long, and now this miracle has happened. Sex is a part of it, of course, but I have a Romaunt of the Rose feeling about it too. On Saturday we could have lunch at Fortt's, then go back to Mrs H's. Never mind if you can't make it then. I am free on Sunday too or Sunday week. Signal me tomorrow as to whether and when you can come.
Anthony Powell has written to me, and mentions you admiringly. Some of his comments about the Army are v funny. He's somebody I'd like to know better when the war is over. I find his letters funnier than his books. Tinkerty-tonk, my darling. I pray I'll hear from you tomorrow. If I don't I'll visit your office in a fake beard.
All love, JB
I guess the odds of the message being there accidentally aren't very good.

This hoax falls into the category of jokes made at the expense of academics. The most famous example of this was the 1725 case of the Lying Stones of Dr. Beringer, in which Johann Beringer thought he had found some remarkable fossils on a local mountain, until he discovered that one of the supposed fossils had his name inscribed on it. The 17th-century scholar Athanasius Kircher was also the victim of a few jokes like this. One time he labored for days over a strange message he thought might be in Chinese, only to realize that the message was simply a latin phrase, written in reverse, that said "Do not seek vain things, or waste time on unprofitable trifles."
Categories: Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Thu Aug 31, 2006
Comments (6)
Much to my surprise, I came across this page of "Alex Boese Quotes" on I was kind of flattered to find it, even though I'm sure the page was created by a computer trawling newspaper articles, and despite the fact that the three quotes (which I do recognize, and which I did say) are completely unmemorable. I think I've said some better things in my life. For instance, the first sentence of Hippo Eats Dwarf is better: "We live in a hippo-eats-dwarf world."

And what about this quote from page 12 of Hippo Eats Dwarf: "The fact is that men possess all the biological equipment necessary to produce breast milk." That's a quote worth committing to memory.

Or from page 79: "Drinking your own urine is said to help improve your immune system, give you nice skin, prevent aging, and fight gum disease. And that's just for starters."

Or from page 83: "To produce rat-milk cheese, you would need an awful lot of rats."

I notice that thinkexist has a "submit a new Alex Boese quote" link. So if anyone is interested, be my guest. Maybe you can even think of some things I should have said.
Categories: Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Wed Aug 16, 2006
Comments (15)
Status: Hoax
The following quotation is widely attributed to Albert Einstein:
"As a young man, my fondest dream was to become a geographer. However, while working in the Customs Office, I thought deeply about the matter and concluded that it was far too difficult a subject. With some reluctance, I then turned to physics as an alternative."
Did he ever say it? No. Nor did he ever work in the Customs Office. (He worked in the Patent Office.) In an article in the Toronto Star, Sharon Burnside traces how the quotation became attributed to Einstein in the first place. Apparently it was actually written by Duane Marble, a faculty member at New York State University, who, a few decades ago, posted the quotation on his office door as a joke directed at the Physics faculty who worked in the same building with him. From there it spread until it became an official Einstein quote. It was finally debunked in 1997 in a series of columns in GIS World written by Jerry Dobson.

I found the Toronto Star article via Craig Silverman's Regret The Error. Craig says that he's thinking of creating a master list of erroneous attributions. If so, he should definitely add to his list the famous P.T. Barnum quotation "There's a sucker born every minute." Barnum always swore he never said it. No one is sure exactly who did say it, but a leading theory is that it was said by the owners of the Cardiff Giant who were annoyed that Barnum's fake Cardiff Giant was getting more attention than their 'real' one.

Another erroneous quotation is "It's not who votes that counts; it's who counts the votes." Often attributed to Joseph Stalin, although there's no evidence he ever said it. It's not known who did say it.
Categories: Literature/Language, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Tue Jul 25, 2006
Comments (7)
Status: Linguistic puzzle
Check out these parsing challenges over at It took me a good 15 or 20 minutes to figure out why they make sense. (Though I'm sure some people will figure them out immediately.) The first one is this sentence:

Dogs dogs dog dog dogs.

It's a legitimate english sentence. To figure out how this is so, it helps to compare it to the sentence: Cats dogs chase catch mice. (They both share the same structure.)

The linguist list folks then point out that the word 'buffalo' can also serve as the basis for a similar sentence:

Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo.

And if you consider the possibility of Buffalo in the city of Buffalo being 'Buffalo buffalo', you can get this sentence:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

Linguist list actually strings 10 'buffalo' together as one sentence, but I think only 8 can be used, since to 'Buffalo buffalo' can't be used as a verb. (via Reddit)
Categories: Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Sat Jul 22, 2006
Comments (33)
Status: Clever marketing scheme
Kathleen McGowan claims to be a descendant of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene. That belief would make her no different than all the other people in this world suffering from delusions of grandeur, except that she's managed to leverage her extraordinary claim of ancestry into a major book deal. Simon & Schuster will soon be publishing her novel, The Expected One, with a print-run of 250,000 copies. The book is a loose fictionalization of her claim. She wanted to publish it as nonfiction but explains that she couldn't do so because "she couldn't make public the sources she developed while researching and writing her book."

Many might view McGowan's novel and ancestry claim as an extraordinarily brazen Da Vinci Code rip-off. But not so, she says. And she's quite right. I think it's actually a Holy Blood, Holy Grail rip-off (as was the Da Vinci Code itself). And I have to hand it to her that it is a clever way to cash in on the religious thriller mania that Holy Blood, Holy Grail and the Da Vinci Code have inspired.

As proof of her ancestry, McGowan says that she's had visions of Mary Magdalene. She also claims to have genealogical records passed down through her family during the past two thousand years. But, of course, she's not sharing these documents with anyone.

What I find interesting (though not surprising) are the comments in support of her ancestry claim from the editor-in-chief of Touchstone and her literary agent. Her editor says, "Yes, I believe her. Her passion and her mission are so strong, how can she not be?"

And her agent says, "She spent 20 years of her life researching this subject. You have to give her any benefit of the doubt because she's totally rational. I believe her absolutely. She had total credibility with me from the very beginning."

In other words, her editor and agent seem to be arguing that as long as someone is fanatical enough about what they claim, then they must be right, even if they offer no evidence to support what they're saying. Unfortunately, most of the people in the world probably would agree with this sentiment.
Categories: Literature/Language, Religion
Posted by Alex on Fri Jul 21, 2006
Comments (26)
Status: Literary Hoax
The Weekend Australian recently announced the results of a literary experiment. They took chapter three of celebrated Australian writer Patrick White's novel The Eye of the Storm, changed its title to The Eye of the Cyclone, changed the names of the characters in it, and changed the name of the author to Wraith Picket (an anagram of Patrick White). Then they submitted this to twelve Australian publishers. Ten of them rejected it, and two never responded. One reviewer wrote that "the sample chapter, while reply (sic) with energy and feeling, does not give evidence that the work is yet of a publishable quality."

This particular brand of literary hoax has been done countless times before, and always, it seems, with the same result. Most recently the Sunday Times submitted chapters of a VS Naipaul novel to British publishers, who summarily rejected it. The perpetrators of the hoax always claim it reveals the weak literary standards of the publishing industry. Meanwhile the publishing industry just shrugs off the hoaxes and continues on trying to figure out how to make money. My theory is that journalists love to repeat this experiment because most of them are wannabe novelists and like to imagine that their lack of literary success is due to the short-sightedness of the publishing industry, not their own lack of talent. (Though I should note that I like to complain about the publishing industry as much as anyone.)

I think that the Weekend Australian should have submitted the chapter to horror publishers, because Wraith Picket would make a great name for a horror writer.
Categories: Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Wed Jul 19, 2006
Comments (8)
Status: Purposeful plagiarism
A hoax? A ploy? A gimmick? I'm not sure what to call this. Check out this piece by David Edelstein on plagiarism. Now read this, which reveals that Edelstein's piece on plagiarism was, except for the first and last lines, entirely plagiarized from other sources. Very clever! Seriously -- that's pretty neat. Very meta.

(This post was plagiarized from Penguins on the Equator... and thanks to Joe Littrell for the heads up about the New York Magazine piece.)
Categories: Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Wed May 10, 2006
Comments (5)
Status: Undetermined
Following a post about how California got its name, Boing Boing added an interesting reader comment alleging that Idaho got its name because of a hoax:

"When a name was being selected for new territory, eccentric lobbyist George M. Willing suggested 'Idaho,' which he claimed was a Native American term meaning 'gem of the mountains'. It was later revealed Willing had made up the name himself, and the original Idaho territory was re-named Colorado because of it. Eventually the controversy was forgotten, and modern-day Idaho was given the made-up name when the Idaho Territory was formally created in 1863."

I had never heard this before, so I did a little research. It turns out that Willing did indeed claim to have invented the name Idaho. But whether he did or not is uncertain, since his claim was first published fifteen years after the first appearance of the word. Plus, he was a bit of a self-promoter and not entirely trustworthy. I found the following discussion of the Idaho question in an article by Erl H. Ellis published in Western Folklore, Oct. 1951:
The first known use of this name was by or before a Congressional committee early in 1860, when the proposal to create a new territory of the Pikes Peak region was before the Congress. In the April 18, 1860 issue of the Rocky Mountain News, Mr. S.W. Beall wrote back to Denver and stated that this name Idaho seemed the most popular suggestion before the committee. On May 10 and 11, 1860, the Congressional Globe mentions the proposals for the Territory of Idaho, and noted that Idaho was an Indian name signifying "Gem of the Mountain." When the territory with Denver as its center was later created, the name Colorado was substituted at the last moment for Idaho. How this name came before the Congress very early in 1860 is unknown. If this was an Indian name known to the miners who flocked to the gold fields in 1859, no mention of the fact was ever made in the newspapers of those days. So perhaps the name was invented by one Dr. George M. Willing; at any rate he claimed to have done so. Willing came to Denver in 1859 from St. Louis and became a candidate for election as delegate to the Congress, despite the lack of any right of the gold miners to have a delegate in Washington. Even though Willing lost the election, he went on to Washington and posed as the properly elected delegate. He claimed that he there invented the name Idaho, it being suggested by the presence of a little girl, Ida. His relation of the matter was published by a friend of his, William O. Stoddard, in the New York Daily Tribune for December 11, 1875...

The Territory of Colorado was actually created February 28, 1861. That was the end of the official interest in the word for the Pikes Peak area. It was after these "Colorado" events that we find the word being used in what became the state of Idaho. In December, 1861, the territorial legislature of Washington created an Idaho County, and it later became a county of the state of Idaho. Joaquin Miller, the "poet of the Sierras," was responsible for several versions of how the word Idaho was first put into that form by him in the winter of 1861-1862. In one of these accounts Miller spells the name "E-dah-hoe" and says that it was an Indian word meaning "the light or diadem on the line of the mountain." A number of historians of the state of Idaho have accepted this story from Miller, but others have noted that the name was well known and used before Miller appeared upon the scene. The Territory of Idaho was created on March 3, 1863, again after the Congress nearly adopted another name, Montana.

Even if Idaho did get its name from a hoax, Des Moines can lay claim to a funnier name origin. The Peoria indians told the first white settlers that the tribe living in that area (their rivals) was named the Moingoana, which became the root of Des Moines. But it turns out that Moingoana was really the Peoria word for "shitfaces".
Categories: Literature/Language, Places
Posted by Alex on Wed Apr 26, 2006
Comments (11)
Status: Movie planned about a recent hoax
image Variety reports that the JT Leroy hoax is already heading to the big screen. The Weinstein Company has committed to making a film about Laura Albert's elaborate deception. (Laura Albert was the woman who invented the JT Leroy character.) The time between the hoax being exposed and a movie deal about it being inked seems to have occurred incredibly fast. What is it... a month or two since the hoax was confirmed? The dust has barely settled.

I hope the movie is good. In its favor is that hoaxes seem to translate pretty well to the big screen. Shattered Glass (about the journalistic deceptions of Stephen Glass) was a great movie. And Princess Caraboo, starring Phoebe Cates, (about the Princess Caraboo hoax, obviously) was decent, as a kid's movie. I've read that a movie called The Hoax, starring Richard Gere, about Clifford Irving's fake autobiography of Howard Hughes, is coming out soon. That also sounds good.

In other JT Leroy news, a movie version of one of his (her?) books, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, is about to debut. The movie was made under the assumption that the story it told was true. Now that story has been exposed as a lie, prompting a rapid switch in how the movie is marketed. My guess is that most people still have never heard of JT Leroy, so the hoax shouldn't have much impact on the movie.

Related Posts:
October 10, 2005: Is JT Leroy A Hoax?
January 9, 2006: JT Leroy: An Update
February 6, 2006: Knoop Confesses JT Leroy Was a Hoax
Categories: Entertainment, Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Thu Mar 09, 2006
Comments (6)
Status: True
The internet is full of many unfortunate urls that can be read in two ways. Some of the urls intentionally have double meanings, some don't. For instance, (via grafix / viagra fix) was an unintentional oversight, but (powergen italia / power genitalia) was a deliberate joke, as is Apparently Vietnamese sites are prone to the same problem. For which reason, Vietnamese regulators have rejected the website name The BBC explains:

A website hoping to promote grapefruit in Vietnam has been banned from using the fruit's name because of official fears of a mix-up with a penis.
The Vietnamese for grapefruit, buoi, sounds different from a slang word for penis, but without special accents it looks the same. Vietnamese regulations say website names cannot include "sensitive" words. The site, set up to market a grapefruit wholesaler in Ha Tinh province, was told to find another name. "We have to refuse the website name of because the word for grapefruit, buoi, without a proper tone marking can be misunderstood," Thai Huu Ly, of the Vietnam Internet Network Information Centre, told the AFP agency.
Categories: Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Thu Feb 16, 2006
Comments (5)
The Comics Should Be Good blog is creating a database of comic book urban legends. I don't recognize all the names and characters referred to, but it makes for interesting reading anyway. Here's a few samples (full explanations for all of these at Comics Should Be Good):

Wolverine's costume was patterned in part on the uniforms of the Michigan Wolverines football team. (False)

Joker was originally killed off in his SECOND appearance! (True)

Wolverine was initially intended to be a genetically mutated wolverine. (True)

Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston invented the polygraph test! (False)

Marvel Comics licenses the use of the name "Hulk" to Hulk Hogan. (False, now... but it used to be true)

Marvel HAS to publish a Captain Marvel comic book. (For all intents and purposes, True)

DC had a Superman storyline set during the Holocaust that did not mention the word "Jew" or "Jewish." (True)

Nicolas Cage took his last name from Luke Cage, Hero For Hire. (True, depending on when you talk to Nicolas Cage)
Categories: Literature/Language, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Mon Feb 13, 2006
Comments (7)
Status: Final nail in coffin of JT Leroy
Just in case there was anyone who still doubted that JT Leroy was a hoax, the deception has finally been admitted to by an insider, Geoffrey Knoop. Knoop was the partner of Laura Albert, the woman who (it can now definitely be said) wrote all of JT Leroy's books. The face of JT Leroy, whenever Leroy made any public appearances, was Savannah Knoop, Geoffrey's half-sister. Geoffrey Knoop has said: "The jig is up... I do want to apologize to people who were hurt. It got to a level I didn't expect." Knoop also says that he doubts Laura Albert will ever admit to being JT Leroy: "For her, it's very personal. It's not a hoax. It's a part of her."

Previous posts about JT Leroy:
October 10, 2005: Is JT Leroy A Hoax?
January 9, 2006: JT Leroy: An Update
Categories: Identity/Imposters, Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Tue Feb 07, 2006
Comments (2)
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