Esquivalience: At what point does a fake word become real?

Publishers of reference material sometimes add false or trap information as a way to catch others who steal their material. Mailing lists often include trap addresses to catch people who rent mailing lists and use them more than once without paying for multiple uses. Maps sometimes add fake streets. Old books of logarithmic tables included intentionally wrong numbers (crazy!). Online trivia contests ask fake questions with searchable fake answers on shill websites to catch cheaters who use the web to look up answers. And dictionaries include made-up words. Here's an example of the latter from Greg Ross' Futility Closet. The 2001 edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary contains a fake word, esquivalience, defined as “the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities; the shirking of duties.”
Sure enough, the word turned up at (it’s since been taken down), which cited Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary, and it currently has three definitions on Google Dictionary. At what point does a fake word become real? NOAD editor Christine Lindberg, who invented this one, told theChicago Tribune that she finds herself using it regularly. “I especially like the critical, judgmental tone I can get out of it: ‘Those esquivalient little wretches.’ Sounds literate and nasty all in one breath. I like that.”
Esquivalience: At what point does a fake word become real?


  1. Oh, man, that word is now real; I am going to use the shit out of ‘esquivalience’!

    That esquivalient organization. This esquivalient politician. The esquivalience of the current government.

  2. Words become words as soon as someone uses them.

    In this case, the word’s having been cited as an example of a made-up word, and its appearance in mass media as an example of the same, certainly enshrines its status as a word: cf. the oft-cited cromulent or quidgyboo (sp.?) of Simpsons’ fame.

    1. I agree generally with this sentiment, except I don’t think the relatively limited use of this word is enough to recommend its general usage, especially since few people know what it means, and a naive reader would have trouble figuring it out. So is it a word? I guess so. But it’s not really a part of the English language if only a dozen people are using it, I would think. But IANAL (linguist).

      1. I’d agree: the jokes on this thread alone, mawkish and silly as they are, are argument enough against the word’s general usage. (LOL I REFUDIATE UR ESQUIVALIENCE, really, don’t try word humor at home, kids!) Any jackass with a TV can say cromulent. I meant that it’s a word in the sense of smartypants types talking about it in a linguistic sense, as we’re doing.

  3. At what point does a fake word become real?

    Oh man, what a softball!

    When Sarah Palin uses it, duh.

    Go ahead .. refudiate me.

  4. Ah, so that’s why one of my mathematical handbooks had the same formula repeated 5 times. Someone’s been esquivaliating! (or should it be esquivalified?esquivalificated?esquidated?perhaps desquided?)

  5. If it wasn’t a word yet, it certainly is now! It’s cromulence can no longer be denied. In fact, I’d say that appearing in a major blog post is likely to encromulate any neologism.

  6. All words are imaginary constructs.  They might refer to real things, but they never become real themselves.  ;)

  7. i thought it would mean “like esquivel”, which would never be used since nothing on earth is like esquivel.

  8. Buddy, you want more intentional fakes? Try L.A. They embiggen a lot of things there on purpose.  

    1. The Bard came up with thousands of new words, including “bedroom.” Many of these are now in common usage. And that’s really the only important criterion. Languages are not taught by dictionary writers, they’re whispered into the ears of babies and reinvented with each new generation.

      1. Shakespeare is the first textual witness to these words, which is a far cry from him having “invented” them, in the sense that he sat alone in his room and came up with bedroom or fishify. And any scholar will tell you that the Oxford English Dictionary, the best record of this data for the English language, is only an approximate guide to the first use of a word in print, as much has perished, and the OED itself was rather unsystematically compiled by mainly amateur readers overseen by a team of scholars: earlier recorded instances of a word pop up all the time and are entered into the online, third edition of the OED. Shakespeare is the first witness to so many words, though!
        Shakespeare’s bedroom, BTW, means “Room in bed, sleeping room or space”: this is not in common usage in the same sense as the much more standard and common sense of bedroom as the room where one sleeps, which was first recorded by one R. Surflet in 1600: the same year as Shakespeare’s bedroom, from Midsummer Night’s Dream. Yay, words!

        1. True, but for one person to be the first extant written record of so *many* words (even if their meaning has sifted in the intervening centuries), when we have so many other texts from the period and prior, means it is exceedingly likely that a sizable number were, in fact, invented by him or people close to him.
          It’s not unusual for people to invent new words. Groups of children can invent a whole new language with it’s own grammar in a single generation. But when you’re as well-remembered and oft-quoted as Shakespeare, your neologisms are much more likely to stick.

  9. When a dictionary spreads disinformation, it’s a way to catch thieves. When a dictionary on the Internet spreads false information, it’s called Wikipedia.

  10. Sheesh, if you’re going to make up a word, you might as well give it the right definition.

    Esquivalence clearly should be defined as “music on the caliber of that made by Juan Garcia Esquivel.”

  11.   I’ve been a fan of neologizing for the fun of neologizing since I started reading the Beats back at Uni.  But it reminds me of a specific word.  That being ‘practicable’.  I think I first realised that more than one book contained it when I finished the memoirs of U.S. Grant.  It pops up here and there in pre-modern history and sometimes in certain other places.  At the time I wondered… what gives… do the words ‘able’ and ‘practical’ not fit the bill here Ulysses, old Sir, that one must use a newly pressed bit of verbiage?  It makes me wonder now.

  12. I would have guessed that it meant “Ubiquitous and pervasive Esquivel music”. Sounds like fun to me!

    1. Shakespeare also invented “fishify” (to turn something/someone into a fish), which is a criminally underused word.

      Only because it’s a criminally underexecuted process.  We all know someone who would benefit from a good fishifying, don’t we?

  13. Bafubida. That’s when you’re going down some stairs in the dark and you think there’s one more step down but there isn’t, and you step down HARD, baFUbida. I don’t know how to put the required umlaut over the u.

    Also, hody hody depravody.

    1. Here you go: Bafübida.  Cut, paste, and edit to your heart’s content.  (I used MS Word)

  14. There was a great Saberhagen “Beserker” story about fake entries in the “Encyclopaedia Galactica”. The interstellar encyclopaedia salesman’s ship gets stormed by a boarding crew of Killer Robots fro a damaged Beserker.  He offers them a set of encyclopaedias in return for his life: claiming that the star charts within will all the Beserker to navigate to the nearest system with the technological base to allow it to repair itself.

    His offer is accepted but he is put on trial for his life on the charge of aiding a Beserker’s genocide as the nearest system is inhabited with a minimal defence force.  He wins the trial since the entry in question is a fake one and will lead the Beserker to its death in a completely empty system!

  15. I think the mistake here is the premise that words “exist” AND that it requires a “critical mass” of people using it for it to be “real”. As if there is something who has the God-given “authority” to declare words to be “real” or not.

    For example, the word “oui” is NOT a word in English, but it is a world in French. Just because English speakers don’t consider it a word does not change the fact that millions of people around the world use it in order to communicate their ideas.

    My friends and I used a word we “made up” to refer to one another: “bouly” (and all other appropriate terms, boulies, boulied, etc). It was a word for us with a very specific meaning; for example, we would call a special event that we collectively shared as a “bouly summit”, or we would great one another as “howdy, bouly!” However, just because other people don’t use it (or at least don’t use in the same way we did), does that mean our word is a “fake” word? That it’s not “real”? It was real to us, and thus, “bouly” is just as much of a “real word” as “hello” and “computer”.

    Essentially, who has the right or authority to tell us that ANY word is “fake” and “not real”? From my point of view, as long as that word is used to communicate thoughts and ideas between people and that both people properly understand the intent and meaning of the word, it’s “real”. It may not be “real” to EVERYONE (but, frankly, what word IS??), but as long as the people using that word understand what is being said, that’s all it takes.

    1. If words aren’t “real” (whatever this means), then what are they? Unreal? Are they not real as in the way a table is real? Define your terms, good Sir!

      And why is Oui not an English word? It’s French in origin, sure, but I bet lots of monoglot English speakers know Oui and could even use it in some situations–like making fun of Frenchy French people–thus making it an at least somewhat-naturalized “English” word. Laissez le bon temps rouler is an English phrase, in this sense, as are so many thousands of others. Origin isn’t the only criterion: currency in another language makes these words and phrases de facto (a naturalized Latin phrase) words in those other languages.

  16. Although I disagree with Newt’s politics, I’m much more offended by the 7.3 million followers of Ashton Kutcher, because most of them are real people.  That’s what truly destroys my faith in humanity.

  17. What i find more interesting here is the length to which some entity will go to ensure they catch anyone that appears to benefit from their service without paying.

  18. How do you know when the word is real? When your Scrabble opponent accepts it.
    “Esquivalient, for 24 points, and with two triple word scores, and 50 points for clearing the rack. Good catch!”

    (I do not actually know if Scrabble dictionaries have copytraps.)

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