Monday, 9 November 2009

Unintended Mistakes and Cartographers' Follies

I was just listening to The World at One. The main story was that Gordon Brown had made what he called an "unintended mistake". This gladdened me as it would have been odd if he had made an intended mistake. I'm not sure that a mistake can even theoretically be intended, unless it's a cartographer's folly.

My word! I was just googling for a link to explain what a cartographer's folly is and could find almost nothing. So here goes. Maps are very easy to plagiarise. Rather than going out with theodolyte and measuring rod you can just reprint the Ordinance Survey map and claim it as your own. If the OS try and sue, you just pretend that you really mapped the area and that your map is identical to theirs because it is of precisely the same place. To stop such skullduggery, in every map you see published there will always be one small, deliberate error. It will be so tiny that it could never harm an orienteer but it will be there like the slight assymetry in a Persian rug and it will be enough for the original cartographer to be able to identify his work and sue.

I have often wondered, spending as much time as I do sniffing dictionaries, whether there is such a thing as a lexicographer's folly.


  1. I dimly recall from my time at university aeons ago that the first four or so editions of the Greek/English lexicon written by Liddell and Scott included an early interpretation of 'sycophant', as the word literally meaning to show figs, and referred to informants on those who did, in fact, steal figs during lean times. The last sentence of this entry would invariably read. 'Of course, this could merely be a figment.'

  2. I have used the example of Persian carpet-makers for many years to excuse a veritable panoply (are panoplies always veritable?) of errors and omissions. I shall add 'cartographer's folly' to my lexicon henceforth.

  3. They are also called copyright traps, they are used in sheet music and dictionaries as well.

  4. I'm a dictionary sniffer, too, and I know these deliberate errors as "Mountweazels".