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Today, I came across WP's entry for the word esquivalience:

"Esquivalience" is a fictitious entry in the New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD), which was designed and included to protect copyright of the publication.

The word was invented by Christine Lindberg, one of the editors of the NOAD and discovered by Henry Alford.

It was leaked that the dictionary had put in a fake word in the letter "e" and Alford set out to find the word. It was discovered after review of a short list by several experts. When the editor, Erin McKean, was contacted she admitted that it was indeed a fake word and had been in since the first edition, in order to protect the copyright of the CD-ROM edition.

The word is defined as "the willful avoidance of one's official responsibilities."

The first edition of the NOAD was published back in 2001 and two more have since seen print. Eleven years later, the word continues to be defined as a legitimate entry on ODO, Google, and going by the WP article, in the print editions. Is it now considered an authentic word? Or are OUP esquivaliently demonstrating the use of their esquivalience?

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    Invented by X and discovered by Y? Did X forget about it?
    – Mitch
    Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 17:16
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    I am sorely tempted to use this word next time I write a formal letter of complaint. :)
    – Pitarou
    Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 23:09
  • Denying the word's authenticity would be a parade example of the etymological fallacy. Commented Oct 17, 2012 at 1:51
  • Your two links where you say "it continues to be defined as a legitimate entry" do not actually say that. The first one is a link to Oxford Dictionaries, which you yourself state has said it is not a legitimate word but "indeed a fake word" it had put in in order to protect its copyright, a common practice by publishers since a planted mistake or fake word showing up elsewhere in works suspected of copyright infringement stands as proof of copyright infringement. The second one that links to Google states right at the top just under the fake words' explanation and definition: "Not a word." Commented May 15, 2021 at 21:45
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    An invented word becoming accepted as a real one, I don't believe it. Esquivalience sounds perfectly cromulent to me:-)
    – BoldBen
    Commented May 15, 2021 at 23:49

4 Answers 4

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This is one place where I think NGrams can throw a little light on the subject.

enter image description here

Even when you narrow the search to between 2000 and 2008, you're still looking at a flatlining entry.

In cases where a word is defined by a dictionary but nobody is really using it, I think it's safe to say it's not a real word. If people pick it up and start using it, then sure, it will qualify. For now, though, I would call it artificial — a Potemkin village of a word.

Edit

It was pointed out to me that I misspelled the made-up word. I'm not sure how a fake word can be misspelled, but here is an NGram for the "correct" spelling. Note the huge jump in usage.

enter image description here

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  • If you care, I've just verified that this non-word does not appear in the current online version of the OED. It's a shame though that this question will now be one of the top Google hits for the non-word I shall not type. :(
    – tchrist
    Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 17:39
  • @tchrist I'm unfamiliar with the online OED. Does it incorporate the NOAD? Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 17:59
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    @Robusto Hey, you misspelled it in your NGram search. It's esquivalience, with another i in. (Not that that changes the results, mind.)
    – Mr Lister
    Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 19:37
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    @MrLister: The difference is plain. See above.
    – Robusto
    Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 19:45
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A Google search yields a few genuine hits for that word. Here's one that contains some comments by the NOAD editor who created the word. She says "that she finds herself using it regularly". A few dictionaries contain the word, or used to (Dictionary.com) but deleted it.

The question is whether anyone but the NOAD editor and her buddies use the word. If English speakers see it in NOAD and actually start using it because they believe it's a real word, then it becomes one because it's used. If no one actually uses it, then it's not a real word. But the real test, it seems to me, is when it's included in the Scrabble dictionary: then and only then is it a real word. But maybe it's just a matter of faith: If I believe it's true, then it's true for me and that's all that's important. Solipsism is everywhere.

Alford's New Yorker article about it is interesting. The Chicago Tribune article cited in Wikipedia is a dead link.

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  • What about exagmination? Commented Oct 17, 2012 at 1:48
  • Strictly for specialistas and Finnegan's Wake lovers. I read the first 32 pages of the latter and decided to save the rest for my next life. It might be interesting to read the Exag to see what JJ's friends had to say, though: "... His writing is not about something; it is that something itself." Samuel Beckett. link
    – user21497
    Commented Oct 17, 2012 at 2:09
  • Thanks. The Tribune article is here. Commented Oct 17, 2012 at 5:56
  • Unfortunately last I checked the Scrabble dictionary doesn't include words longer than 8 letters (in base form) so I think you're going to be in a bit of trouble with that rule.
    – Merk
    Commented Oct 18, 2012 at 6:42
  • I was being a bit facetious with that remark. :-)
    – user21497
    Commented Oct 18, 2012 at 9:53
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Well it apparently appears in the online video game Fallen London ("What do they study at the Department of Antiquarian Esquivalience? Sadly, it would go against their very ethos to explain it to you unless you already know.") which means that it seems to be being used, but only as a sort of in joke about about its own artificial nature (or possibly its real definition, the context makes it kinda unclear)

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Thanks. I noted that the practice of including fictitious items in allegedly factual research documents has the effect of creating, out of thin air, "real" references [particularly] for dictionaries: the nonce-word esquivalience ("the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities") was apparently created for a 2005 dictionary publication. Anyone who happened upon that "word," thought it useful, and . . . went ahead and used it in a published text would thereby, at a stroke, make a "real" word from an unreal one.

Amusingly, this happened before Facebook – which is possibly the most prominent generator of esquivalience in our time. Wait—I just used that word for real . . . now are you going to tell me it’s not a “real word”? Words become words by being used and understood as words…something which I and you just successfully managed.

In at least one case, a real place came to be after a fictitious entry named it: Agloe, New York. Unless, of course, this Wikipedia entry's allegedly factual reference to a real place is itself a fictitious entry intended to trap those who would steal information (and whoever wrote the Wikipedia entry fell for it). Philip K. Dick would be proud.

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  • 'Words become words by being used and understood as words…something which I and you just successfully managed.' The stipulative definition of word I find more sensible (if harder to work with at times) is '[Candidate] words become words by being used and understood [and accepted] as words by a reasonable sample of native speakers.' I've just briefed my wife that I've just imposed on the candidate (is it even that?) bofordalek the meaning 'handkerchief'. She just repeated the 'meaning' back to me (with the expected exasperated follow-up). It is unhelpful to consider 'bo ... ek' a word. Commented May 17, 2021 at 14:04
  • My tongue was slightly in cheek there, as I would have hoped was obvious. Yet, of course, the negotiation of "a reasonable sample" of speakers/readers happens, in practice, one-by-one most often, in the intimacy of reading practice. The word in this case has the advantage of already existing in a high-profile publication. It remains only to be put into use—it needn't develop and convey along with itself a new meaning as well as the newness of its form.
    – Jeff N
    Commented May 18, 2021 at 21:21

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