Monday, April 24, 2006


“Esquivalience” – n. the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities.

That’s the definition of the word that is listed in the New Oxford American Dictionary, a respected and successful dictionary. It’s a useful word, and had I known it, I would have used it more and more often. I also think that it would make an excellent away message. Cryptic, yet funny after the other interested party looks it up.

However, there is a slight problem: It’s not a real word.

Esquivalience is a Nihilartikel, a “nothing article”. Nihilartikels are fake articles, deliberately placed in a publication for a variety of reasons. Often they are a subtle joke, and more deviously, they are a copyright trap.

Such is the case of esquivalience. The clever folks at New Oxford American Dictionary had put their dictionary into the very convenient and very piratable format of a CD, and knew that plagiarism was inevitable. So to catch less scrupulous dictionary makers who had the bad habit of stealing from other dictionaries they put in a word that was to be found nowhere else. If the word turned up elsewhere, they knew where it came from.

All of this was uncovered very cleverly by Henry Alford in a New Yorker article. What is more interesting to me is the overall and widespread phenomenon of copyright traps.

The world of indexical knowledge is often a circular place, and there is no doubt that references often must consult each other. That this ingenious form of protection would emerge is impressive, but I suppose not unexpected. Wikipedia would lead me to believe that not only do dictionaries and encyclopedias have fake entries, but that many maps often contain invented streets and telephone books contain fabricated persons, all for the purpose of being able to track and hunt down those who infringe on copyright.

I like the fact that these reference books which supposedly document the truth don’t mind indulging in the occasional white lie or misinformation. I am disappointed, however, that esquivalience is not a real word. Or is it? Google counts over 13,000 mentions of the word. This fake word is gaining a life of its own.


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