Is it a prank, an editing mistake, or a subversive maneuver? Is it a rabbit hole, or a really obscure bit of informatics? Is it a relic of a deleted exchange, or a glimpse of something to come? Is it internet chaff, or something sinister?
What is malin-grey literature?
I discovered the topic over the weekend when exploring the Wikipedia page on gray literature. That term refers to scholarly ephemera, informal communications beyond peer-reviewed journals and monographs: memos, letters, old drafts, etc. I find it an interesting, minor facet of scholarly communication. A tangent for a project I'm working on.
Reading into the Wikipedia page, I found an odd section halfway down the page. It's an innocent-looking subsection, two paragraphs long, set off by a header and dividing lines, and referring to a sub-type of gray literature. Here's the first paragraph:
By contrast, 'malin-grey literature' refers to publications whose self-referencing and dissemination are actively construed to avoid the attention of information professionals. Examples include classified or confidential scientific documents. Malin-grey literature should not be confused with samizdat or underground literature per se, as these publications often are only concerned with disguising the author and distributor's identities, not preventing dissemination.
[links in original]
I thought this was an interesting concept, a kind of stealth communication different from crypto or steganography. So, as usual, I checked the entry's citations to find out more... and saw nothing. No references. Nothing appeared on the page's discussion tab, either.
This did not strike me as a problem, since many chunks of Wikipedia lack support, and evade editorial scrutiny for a while. So I opened a new tab, launched a quick Google, which turned up... nothing, except copies of the same text. Word for word. Places like Blurbwire just copied the malin-grey material.
Digging further into the Google results, messing with keywords, I came across one variation: a writer by that name, Anne Marie Malingray, a French historian. Very little to be found online about him/her.
That struck me as a bit odd. A passage describing hiding information has no confirmation on the Web? It's appropriate, but to what end? Is malin-grey a game, or a kind of self-referential hoax?
Turn back to the Wikipedia entry. In this light its second paragraph looks stranger still, and even a bit ominous:
Some commentators have suggested the name derives from the French for 'deceptive ingenuity', others - less convincingly - that it is a reference to the Malin shipping area which contains the HMNB Clyde base, home of Britain's nuclear arsenal and place of authorship of many such confidential documents.
Is someone joking about nuclear weapons and/or secrecy? Or is this something deeper, a sign of something serious and sneaky, the Wikipedia's version of numbers radio?
I came across another clue when I tried Bing as a search alternative. Someone else had been intrigued by the cryptic malin-grey, over on the wonderfully named Perugia Murder File board. In August 2010 one "Catnip" contemplated a kind of questioning designed to introduce (or test) newcomers to their community (I think). Catnip thought through asking questions in a revealing way, then found our topic: "I learnt a new word today: this withheld information is malin-grey literature." Catnip quotes, and links to, the same Wikipedia entry.
Nobody else responds to Catnip's post.
Even more mysteriously, Catnip concluded: "Now, there only remains the meaning of malin to find out."
Then - nothing.
"malin" is a French word, meaning clever or cunning. There's also a hint of the English "malignant". Even better.
Interestingly, the splendidly named Orthorhombic also slightly edited this Wikipedia page about the mysterious Chouchani, teacher of Wiesel and Levinas.
So what is malin-grey? Is it a placeholder for a project to come, a starting work by the Chouchani-like "Orthorhombic"? Perhaps malin-grey is an in-joke among several game-players? Is Catnip one of those players? What else could Orthorhombic have been working on? Why didn't Wikipedia's editor swarm check into those over the past year? Is this a serious or real thing?
I have no answers.