In the cut-throat world of lexicography…
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.
Adopt a word. Save our language.
Why save a word? Well, as the website savethewords.org argues, “90% of everything we write is communicated by only 7,000 words,” yet there are “old words, wise words, [and] hard-working words…that once led meaningful lives [but] now lie, unused, unloved, and unwanted.”
The site draws you in with a clever cacophony of sounds and a modernist canvass of labels and signs, each in different fonts, colors, and sizes. Hover over a word and it pipes up with pleas like “Choose me!” while the word next to it demands, “Yo, pick me!”
Click on a word, and you are invited to “adopt” it. If you make the commitment, you “hereby promise to use this word, in conversation and correspondence, as frequently as possible to the best of [your] ability.” Enter your username and password, and you are now the proud adoptive parent of a wayward word. After adopting, you are also encouraged to buy a t-shirt with your word of choice.
Savethewords.org is the brain-child of advertising executive Edward Ong. Ong’s agency, Young and Rubicam, based in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, was hired by the Oxford English Dictionary to promote the print version of its dictionary. Both the OED and Young and Rubicam hope that interest in the obscure words, not found in the online version of the OED, will promote sales of its traditional print version.
In an interview with National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, Ong confessed to host Robert Siegel that they have been shocked by the popularity of the site: “The site kept crashing,” he said, “and we wondering: What in the world? We found that a lot of people have adopted it, a lot of bloggers have used it, a lot of people are talking about it.”
So, what are you waiting for? A periantique word just might give you cause for some good blateration at your next cocktail party.