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The trouble with hoax
Monday, August 27, 2007   1:49 PM

Reading up on The Great Mammoth Hoax of 1899 — the short article is worth reading before I give the punchline away here — I was especially struck (English majors are always getting struck) by the statement McClure's Magazine had to publish after the incident:

This tale as it appeared in McClure's Magazine was pure fiction, and was labelled as such in the magazine's table of contents. Nevertheless, huge numbers of readers were fooled by the realistic tone of the narrative and wrote both to the magazine and to the Smithsonian expressing outrage that the last mammoth had been shot. So many people wrote in that the magazine had to publish a statement in a subsequent issue explaining that "The Killing of the Mammoth" had simply been a work of fiction. Their statement read as follows:

"'The Killing of the Mammoth' by H. Tukeman was printed purely as fiction, with no idea of misleading the public, and was entitled a story in our table of contents. We doubt if any writer of realistic fiction ever had a more general and convincing proof of success."

Of course, like the so-called Boston Mooninite Hoax, this wasn't a hoax at all — there was no deliberate intent to mislead.

Luckily, we have scare to describe situations where the public is panicking. So we can talk about the Mooninite Scare, the Cranberry Scare, the Chinese Sorcery Scare, etc. The word scare allows us to refer to these events without making a judgment about culpability or the degree of deception.

Journalists should use scare more often, and copy editors should add hoax to their list of suspicious things. It's an accusation.

However, scare still leaves us with a gap in the language: people can be fooled without being scared, and sometimes they fool themselves. The mammoth article I quoted above is one example of this, and today I ran across another: "Fake Al Sharpton Fools MSNBC."

An earlier version of this article quoted from a blog entry purportedly by the Rev. Al Sharpton. has determined that the blog is a hoax.

Each of these situations was improperly referred to as a hoax, probably at least in part because the nominalization fooling would sound ridiculous.

I submit that we don't have a good noun for these situations, because people seem all too willing to fall back on this spurious use of hoax. What would work? I have no good suggestions, but it should be short enough for most heds and readily understandable to the average American newspaper reader.


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