Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Mountweazels in Argleton: the phantom town on Google Maps, and the woman who never was

Tom Grady goes trapping for Mountweazels.

Have you ever been to the town of Argleton? Probably not, because it doesn’t exist and never did. But for a while you could find it just off the A59 on Google Maps. 

If you had been there, I suppose you might have run into Lillian V. Mountweazel, a celebrated photographer, known for her shots of rural American mailboxes. She never existed either but she’s in an edition of the New Columbia Encyclopedia. So what’s going on? Copyright traps my friend, copyright traps.

The bustling metropolis of Argleton.
Photo courtesy of Micahel Nolan, neighbour; used under a Creative Commons licence.
Most cartographers will deny it, but it’s rumoured that they deliberately introduce mistakes into their maps in order to catch out copyright violators. Usually the ‘mistakes’ are small, like an extra cul-de-sac here or an exaggerated bend in a road there: they are calculated imperfections that identify authorship and are often known as ‘trap streets’. But the settlement of Argleton could be the boldest example yet - a ‘trap town’. Or it could just have been a genuine mistake that got corrected: either way, for a time it was on the map and then suddenly it wasn’t.

But in-between, the world went slightly mad.

Despite it never existing, news of the fictitious settlement spread across the internet after it was spotted and blogged about by a nearby resident in 2008. The story was picked up by mainstream media, gained momentum, and at one point you could even buy t-shirts bearing the slogan "I visited Argleton and all I got was this t-shirt". Pretty soon, you could find job listings, hotels, flats to rent, and even a chiropractor based there. According to The Daily Telegraph “the businesses, people and services listed [were] real, but actually based elsewhere in the same postcode”. Google removed the town from its maps in May 2010 and released a statement saying that it was a simple, unexplained error. As an earlier blog post of ours explains, you can report errors yourself and get them fixed.

A real weasel. Photo by Jared Kelly,
used under a Creative Commons licence.
But the case of Lillian Virginia Mountweazel is much more cut-and-dried: she was definitely made up.

The 1975 New Columbia Encyclopedia has an entry for the "fountain designer turned photographer" who died "in an explosion while on assignment for Combustibles magazine" but a former New Columbia editor explained it quite simply to the New Yorker magazine:
"It was an old tradition in encyclopedias to put in a fake entry to protect your copyright," Richard Steins, who was one of the volume’s editors, said... "If someone copied Lillian, then we’d know they’d stolen from us."
In a neat twist, the word 'Mountweazel' has now entered general usage as a term used to describe these lexicographical traps. It is an excellent word. See also Esquivalience.

Further reading:
  1. If you’d like to know what the sky above Argleton and other non-existent places looks like, then there’s a Tumblr site for that (of course there is) theskyontrapstreet.tumblr.com
  2. More Mountweazels can be found at mentalfloss.com


  1. Hmm, I wonder if this is why my Ordance Survey Landranger map 105 refers to “Bilton in Ainst” rather than “Ainsty”. And there was me thinking “tsk, doesn't anyone proof-read anything any more?”

    But surely OS typography etc is so distinctive, that anyone flogging pirate OS maps will get caught red-handed long before they get to 105? I suppose it’s got something to do with the fact that copying by non-reprographic means (ie. hand-drawing) still counts as an infringement of copyright, which seems a touchingly archaic prohibition as the legislative code staggers towards the Digital Age…

    1. Funnily-enough, there was a case of OS maps being copied a few years ago. The AA "inadvertently" based all their maps on Ordnance Survey ones and had to pay £20million in compensation: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/1203480.stm


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