Hunting for fake words in the dictionary

This piece from last August's New Yorker documents the fascinating hunt for the fake word inserted into the New Oxford American Dictionary. These fake words are inserted by dictionary editors as a kind of watermark to catch competitors who copy their dictionaries wholesale. The process of figuring out which of the words in the NOAD was the fake was quite involved, with six candidates sent around to a panel of distinguished language-scholars who had a vigorous debate about whether each word was a fake:

The six words and their definitions were e-mailed to nine lexicographical authorities. Anne Soukhanov, the U.S. General Editor of Encarta Webster's, was the first to weigh in. "Ess-kwa-val-ee-ohnce–I want to pronounce it in the French manner–is your culprit," she said. Six other experts also fingered "esquivalience," citing various rationales. "It's just trying a little too hard," said Wendalyn Nichols, the editor-in-chief of the newsletter "Copy Editor" and a onetime editorial director of Random House Reference. "If it's derived from esquiver, it wouldn't have that ending. Nothing linguistically would give rise to the 'l.' " The Times' crossword-puzzle editor, Will Shortz, explained, "I simply can't believe such a thing goes back to the nineteenth century." Steve Kleinedler, a senior editor of the American Heritage Dictionary, said, "The stress pattern is strange." The most personal of the rationales belonged to Eli Horowitz, an editor of the literary anthology "The Future Dictionary of America," who complained, "I had to read it a few times, and I resent that."


(Thanks, Michael!)