OnWords: Hoax

Jan 21, 2020

For some reason, the word “hoax” has been on my mind a lot lately.

“Hoax” is a word with a storied past. Famous examples range from faux autobiographies of Hitler and Howard Hughes to a supposed mummified giant dug up in Cardiff, New York, in 1869. The most famous archaeological hoax, and one of history’s most famous, is Piltdown man, in which an amateur geologist claimed to have found in southeast England the missing link between humans and apes.

All of these great hoaxes share certain features: a good deal of effort went into creating them; they successfully fooled many people, often for a long time; and their creators all intended to deceive.        

The motives for perpetrating hoaxes, though, seem varied: Hoaxsters have wanted fortune and fame, but sometimes they were interested in showing us just how gullible people can be.

But a fourth factor also defines hoaxes: they appear in times, fields, and places of uncertainty such as the ambiguity of fossil evidence, the need to understand enigmatic figures, the uncertainty of authorship.

It’s almost as if uncertainty invites the hoax as much as the hoax creates uncertainty.

The hoax, then, is much more than a simple lie, more pure than a conspiracy theory. The hoax fills ambiguous spaces with ingenuity and reminds us of our own deep need to believe.                                               

The Cardiff Giant, indeed, is still on display, outliving its exposure as fake, a testament to certainty in uncertain realms.