The Hoax

CORRECTION

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

No. No. No, no, stop it. I swear, “hoax” is rapidly becoming the most intentionally misused word in currency.

The above was taken from an MSNBC article about Michael Vick that included a lengthy quotation taken from Newsgroper.com. Newsgroper is devoted to “Fake Parody Blogs, Political Humor, [and] Celebrity Satire,” a fact stated right in the titlebar. It makes no attempt to pawn its stories off as real.

Which is, of course, a key component of a hoax: intent. Merriam-Webster: “hoax, noun. 1: an act intended to trick or dupe; 2: something accepted or established by fraud or fabrication.”

You could argue that the articles on Newsgroper are fabrications. But how do you justify “SUBSTANCE FOUND AT IKEA PROVES TO BE A HOAX,” the headline on a New Haven city webpage, describing the incident in which a running club sprinkled flour in an IKEA parking lot to guide joggers, only to have local authorities react like it was the season finale of 24? The substance itself was a hoax? Someone somewhere had to fabricate the flour, I suppose–wheat doesn’t grow on trees, you know–but where, exactly, is the trick, dupe, or fraud?

Hoax’s reign as the scapegoat du jour dates back to the Boston “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” debacle in February of this year. “Two plead not guilty to Boston hoax charges” the CNN headline read, and the Boston authorities used the word “hoax” to describe the incident as often as they could. The advantages of labeling something like this a hoax are obvious: you didn’t massively overreact to a situation that the average person recognized as harmless, you were tricked into doing so! You didn’t just take a quotation from a clearly phony article on a random webpage and build a story around in, you were duped! You’re not an idiot, you’re just easily gulled! (This argument reminds me of the Democrats claiming that they voted in favor of the Iraq war because the White House tricked them into doing so … not that getting outwitted by Bush is any less embarrassing than getting outwitted by flour.)

If you want some example of legitimate hoaxes, you need look no farther than those bandying around the term. These are the people who intend to trick or dupe, to hide their own culpability behind a malapropism. Whenever I hear the word “hoax” leave the mouth of someone in power, I like to imagine it wearing a little t-shirt reading “I’m With Stupid.”

Update: The City of New Haven updated their page about an hour ago, changing the headline. The original is cached here.

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19 comments.

  1. Oh but don’t you know, if you call something a hoax everyone calms down. If you tell people that the police overreact (I mean, come on, what terrorist with half a brain would make a big, obvious line of anthrax in an IKEA parking lot) then they’re going to look silly. Better to call it a hoax and look like the big rescuer than admit everyone’s a little over-excitable and maybe we should calm the hell down.

  2. I’m just impressed at your use of the word “gulled.” I can only remember hearing “gull” used as a verb in the movie 1776: “For ten years, King George and his Parliament have gulled, cullied, and diddled these colonies with their illegal taxes!”

    I feel like you’ve opened a door for me. Now that I’ve seen someone other than our second president (or Mr Feeny from Boy Meets World, if you prefer) using it, it’s going to be a free-for-all. I’m going to be using it everywhere.

    And also “diddled.” That’s a funny word.

  3. Amen. Very funny.

  4. This blog is a hoax.

  5. Exactly… you’ve put into words what I’ve been thinking (do that trick again!). But with the media, it doesn’t matter what they’re reporting, it’s how they’re reporting it.

  6. GWB as president. Now there’s a hoax! Good one, Diebold, you really had us going! Ha ha!

  7. I just want to know when we can return to the root of the word and bring it back to its original hyphenated status as the medieval pimp’s enforcement weapon of choice – the ho-ax.

  8. These people need to learn the meaning of hoax.

    I challenge any of their female reporters to a wrestling match!

    Returning again, eventually…

    - Andy

  9. well played.

    now if you can tell me where to get one of these little t-shirts…

  10. You are absolutely correct, but since that IKEA was in my home state, I feel I should offer a (feeble) defense. “Uh… Oops! Sorry we wasted your tax money” would have been an equally deplorable headline.

    Now when are you going to tackle

  11. How about “for all intensive purposes.”

  12. This reminds me of my personal peeve about the misuse of the term “beg the question” when someone means “raise the question”. It has been used incorrectly for so long that it is now becoming standard English, and therefore correct to do so. Arrrrgh!

  13. MSNBC has changed their blurb to say that the Al Sharpton blog was a parody, not a hoax.

    I guess MSNBC and the city of New Haven both read your blog.

  14. You’re wrong. I looked it up on Wikipedia and there are two definitions:
    “hoax, noun (1) an act intended to trick everyone into thinking terrorism has happened, (2) a student at the University of Texas”.
    So there!
    Oh, wait… someone reverted my changes.
    Nevermind.

  15. Wait…they’re charging one of the flour-scattering members of the running club with a felony?

    Seriously?

    A felony?

  16. Ditto Thel’s comment. Charged with “breach of peace in the first degree, a felony”?! So spreading the flour was breaching the peace, not the hysterical evacuation of IKEA or the HAZMAT decon of the parking lot? Jebus, people! What a world.

  17. Is America now officially insane, or is that just a hoax?

  18. I just put you/this blog on my list for BlogDay 2007. My husband and I constantly read this blog — well he reads it religiously (he talks about you as the best example of blogging) and passes along the details to me. We’ll try to comment more…

  19. “CLASSIC” – ” WAR OF THE WORLDS” ORSON WELLS ENOUGH SAID ! !