MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Friday, February 21st. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Myrna Brown.
MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. Equivalent writers don’t get very far in journalism. But they make great dictionary editors. WORLD’s George Grant explains why on this month’s edition of Word Play.
GEORGE GRANT, COMMENTATOR: How can a word that is not really a word, ever actually become a word? If that question sounds less like a riddle and more like nonsense, let me tell you a story.
Apparently in the digital age, publishers of copyrighted reference works have begun to add false or trap information as a sly way to catch cut-and-paste poachers, pilferers, and plagiarizers of their intellectual property. So, digital maps might add fake streets. Online trivia contests might include fake questions with searchable fake answers. And dictionaries might include fake words.
The New Oxford American Dictionary is a single-volume work published by the Oxford University Press. It is abridged from the university’s vast 200-million-word database of contemporary American English vocabulary.
The dictionary includes an entry for the word esquivalience. It is defined as “the willful avoidance of one’s official duties or responsibilities.” But the word, its definition, and its etymology were all entirely made up by Christine Lindberg, one of the dictionary’s editors.
When a second edition of the work was published, rumors began to circulate in literary circles that it contained a fictitious entry. A sleuthing writer for The New Yorker magazine, Henry Alford, scoured the text and found a host of suspicious word entries. He took these unusual and unfamiliar terms to a panel of prominent academics and lexicographers—but as it turned out most of the words proved to be authentic.
But, esquivalience inevitably raised a red flag. So, when Alford approached the dictionary’s editor in chief, Erin McLean, she admitted the ruse: the word was indeed a fake, added in order to protect the copyright of the digital edition. She asserted, “Its inherent fakeitude is fairly obvious”—which in and of itself was the height of irony given the fact that “fakeitude” is also a fictitious word.
But, that was not the end of the story. Apparently the esquivalience ploy ensnared a few unsuspecting publishing rivals. Dictionary.com briefly included the word—and attributed its provenance to Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary. The online Google Dictionary also included the word for a time, listing three meanings and giving usage examples.
Interestingly, this word that was not really a word has now become a word. Christine Lindberg, the wily editor who conceived of the subterfuge, told the Chicago Tribune that she actually uses it regularly. “I especially like the critical, judgmental tone I can get out of it,” she admitted. “Those esquivalient little wretches—sounds literate and nasty all in one breath.”
Walker Percy once asserted that language is “both the indispensable means of arriving at the truth and also the snare by which we fall prey to error.”
For WORLD Radio, I’m George Grant.