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NBierma.com > Language > Column > Files

Dictionary sets a trap with an invented word
By Nathan Bierma
"On Language"
Chicago Tribune
September 21, 2005

A term dictionary editors invented as a lexicographical "gotcha" has given word lovers a chuckle.

Last month, the New Yorker reported that the editors of the New Oxford American Dictionary (Oxford University Press, $60) had inserted a false entry in their dictionary as a trap.

Mapmakers and creators of dictionaries, encyclopedias and other reference works sometimes include fake information to expose people who lift the material for their own publications.

Erin McKean, the New Oxford American's Chicago-based editor in chief, says it is unethical for lexicographers to lift a word from another dictionary without doing their own research into how the word is used.

Though traps can result in a copyright infringement charge, usually the most severe punishment is egg on the guilty party's face.

Since the practice is discreet, it is difficult to document, though McKean calls it "not uncommon."

The New Oxford American's trap appears in the dictionary's first edition published in 2001, before McKean was appointed editor in chief, But it wasn't until after the second edition came out earlier this year that talk began to spread about a trick entry.

"I was pressed, and I said, `It's in "E," that's all I'm saying,'" McKean says.

The New Yorker presented a short list of the possible fakes to a group of word experts. The majority of them fingered the word "esquivalience" as a suspect.

The New Oxford American's entry for "esquivalience" defines it as "the willful avoidance of one's official responsibilities; the shirking of duties," as in, "After three subordinates attested to his esquivalience, Lieutenant Claiborne was dismissed." The word's etymology is traced to the late 19th Century, "perhaps from French esquiver, `dodge, slink away.'"

But while "esquiver" is a real French word, "esquivalience" is an invention. McKean confirmed this for The New Yorker, saying the New Oxford American team set out to make up a word for "working hard," which they were. But one editor, Christine Lindberg, came up with a word that meant just the opposite.

"I wanted the word to suggest character weaknesses," Lindberg writes by e-mail, "and words like `quivering' and `vacillating' went through my mind and became the glob of brain putty that eventually got fashioned into `esquivalience.'"

The copyright trap worked. "Esquivalience" showed up at Dictionary.com, attributed to the electronic dictionary Webster's New Millennium Dictionary of English. (The word has since been removed from Dictionary.com.)

McKean says although the definition of "esquivalience" had been altered at Dictionary.com, there was no question that the entry came from anywhere but the New Oxford American Dictionary.

Both Dictionary.com and Webster's New Millennium Dictionary are online reference works offered by Lexico Publishing Group, a privately owned company. Barbara Ann Kipfer, editor of Webster's New Millennium Dictionary, deferred comment to a Lexico spokesman, who did not respond to repeated inquiries.

McKean says she doesn't lose any sleep over dictionary pirates and that Oxford University Press, publisher of the New Oxford American, is not contemplating legal action. As crime waves go, dictionary piracy isn't even a trickle. "Piracy is low on our list of concerns," McKean said. "We don't have hordes of lawyers watching for it or anything."

Still, doesn't her team find it satisfying to say "Gotcha!"?

"I shouldn't say," McKean says. "That should be a `no comment.'"

A more serious question is whether publishing a copyright trap damages a source's credibility. McKean says there's no harm in listing an entry nobody actually uses.

"We wanted it to have as little a footprint as possible. We didn't want to find a [fake] synonym for `yellow,'" she says.

Of course, in the world of lexicography, a made-up word can become real simply by having people discuss it -- and then use it.

Lindberg, the inventor of "esquivalience," says the word is real to her. "It is only this recent bit of attention to my infamous little neologism that has reminded me of its fauxness," she says.

"I find myself using the word regularly, and I've grown quite fond of it. I especially like the critical, judgmental tone I can get out of it: `Those esquivalient little wretches.' Sounds literate and nasty all in one breath. I like that."

Copyright (c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Reprinted in accordance with Chicago Tribune Company copyright policy.


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