Don’t Mess With the New Oxford American Dictionary

In the cut-throat world of lexicography…

Wait… what?

When you think of industries laying traps for potential predatory and purloining practices, it’s unlikely you would assume the people who compile dictionaries are on the lookout for thieves.

But they are.

Just like any form of plagiarism, taking an idea that is not your own and presenting it as original is unethical, explains Editor-in-Chief Erin McKean. So the New American Oxford Dictionary, and others, sometimes set traps for those who do not bother to do their own legwork.

Way back in 2001, the NOAD included the made-up word esquivalence, and defined it as “”the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities; the shirking of duties.”  The editors did everything they could to make the “word” legit, including using it in a sentence: “After three subordinates attested to his esquivalience, Lieutenant Claiborne was dismissed.” And tracing its etymology to the ” late 19th Century, “perhaps from French esquiver, ‘dodge, slink away.'”

The word is especially sweet to Christine Lindberg, the editor who invented the word. She explains: “I wanted the word to suggest character weaknesses, and words like  ‘quivering’ and `vacillating’ went through my mind and became the glob of brain putty that eventually got fashioned into ‘esquivalience.'”

NOAD didn’t have to leave their fishing line in the water long. The bait of “esquivalence” was soon gobbled up by Dictionary.com, who credited Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary of English (electronic edition).  Dictionary.com removed the word, but even ten years later, Google still turns up three separate sources offering definitions.

So now the question is, when does a not-word become a real word? Lindberg says she uses it frequently and has an affection for her invention: “I especially like the critical, judgmental tone I can get out of it.  Sounds literate and nasty all in one breath. I like that.”

What happens to those who get caught? Not much. Sometimes fines for copyright infringement, but embarrassment is the primary punishment for those esquivalient little weasels.


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