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When words become weapons

John Murray

You’ve heard the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword”, but did you know that lexicographers have been known to coin words with the sole intention of catching people out?

For the 2005 edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary, the word ‘esquivalience’ made an appearance. According to the dictionary, it’s a noun meaning  “the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities”, and it is possibly of 19th-century French origin.

In actual fact, however, ‘esquivalience’ is of 21st-century American origin, because it was made up by editor Christine Lindberg. Why? So that Oxford Dictionaries would be able to catch out anybody who copied its content.

Indeed, according to The New Yorker, reference website fell for the phony term and once included an entry for the word. It’s a trick also used by cartographers, who occasionally sneak pretend roads into maps to see if any other mapmakers copy them.

Deliberately or otherwise, ghost words do occasionally sneak into dictionaries. We’ve written before about the rogue appearance of ‘dord’ in the 1934 Webster’s New International Dictionary. Falsely believed to be another word for ‘density’, it remained in the reference guide for five years.

One could argue, though, that ‘dord’ is a perfectly sensible word for ‘density’, and why shouldn’t ‘esquivalience’ have the meaning that Oxford gives it? If enough people take to it, using it in writing and speech, perhaps there will come a day when ‘esquivalience’ ceases to be a phantom and comes to life. The Internet is, in fact, rife with examples of people trying to use the fictitious word in a sentence.

When a publication is as trusted as the Oxford American Dictionary, however, should it really be making up words just to protect its own copyright? In doing so, aren’t the editors demonstrating a degree of esquivalience themselves?

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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