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Words of fakeitude or error

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October 08, 2005, 08:43
Words of fakeitude or error
Today's word, as defined in the New Oxford American Dictionary ["NOAD"]:

1. the willful avoidance of one's official responsibilities; the shirking of duties: after three subordinates attested to his esquivalience, Lieutenant Claiborne was dismissed.
2. an unwillingness to work, esp. as part of a group effort: Bovich was chided by teammates for her esquivalience.
3. lack of interest or motivation: a teenager's esquivalience is not necessarily symptomatic of depression.
[late 19th cent.: perhaps from French esquiver, "dodge, slink away."]

This entry is entirely fake.

Soon after NOAD's second edition was published last spring, the scuttlebutt was that there was a made-up word among its e's. Word-Sleuths hunted, settled upon 'esquivalience' as the prime suspect, and then confronted editor-in-chief Erin McKean.

Ms. McKean 'fessed up. NOED, she said, had deliberately made up 'esquivalience' for its first edition – and copied it into the 2nd – as a trap to catch those who might violate NOED's copyright. That is, if any other dictionary contained 'esquivalience', it could only have gotten the term by copying NOAD, not from any use in the real-world use of that 'word'. “Its inherent fakeitude is fairly obvious,” McKean said. “We wanted something highly improbable."

This week we'll examine words or pseudo-words which, in one way or another, involve or present error or 'fakeitude'.

[And by the way, 'fakeitude' is itself a fake 'word'.]
October 09, 2005, 19:41
Ms. McKean give us one reason why a writer might deliberately put an error in his/her work.¹ But of course, any such errors usually arise from the writer's or printer's a slip-up. Thus, a 1934 Webster's dictionary had an entry stating dord (dôrd), n. Physics & Chem. Density. But no such word exists. It seems that during preparations an index card noted that the abbreviation D or d means "density". Somehow that card wandered from the "abbreviations" workpile to the "words" pile. There it was read not as an abbreviation but as a word, thus its D or d was read as Dord.

Such a mistaken word is called a ghost word – a non-word that is presented as being a word, in a dictionary or other work on words, due to the author's error. Sometimes the term is used more broadly, to include errors which are produced by novelists or other authors, or by the printer. However, the above definition of 'ghost word' tracks the use by the philologist who coined the term, in 1886.
¹Henry Wheatley gives another, telling that when the Inquisition forbade the words fatum and fata, one author simply wrote facta – and then, in his errata sheet, stated "for facta read fata".
October 11, 2005, 10:34
In general, dictionary-writer's errors such as 'dord' remain dictionary curiosities. I know of no ghost-word that has entered the language. But many errors by others do enter. We'll look at a few examples.

[Digression: there's one ghost-word that may have entered the language. In old print-styles the letter s could look very much like an f (see the original title page of Milton's Paradise Lost), and thus soupe - a dialect word something like 'swoop' - could easily be misread as foupe. Samuel Johnson thus misread, and his dictionary defines 'foupe'. In truth there was no such word, but according to Julian Burnside, Johnson's foupe somehow managed to migrate to the Barbados, and there became a slang word meaning "the carefree copulation of animals (not humans)". I am unable to confirm Burnside's story, but he is typically a reliable source.]

obsidian – a dark volcanic glass, formed by the rapid cooling of lava
Pliny tells us that this stone is named for the Roman Obsius, who found a similar stone in Ethiopia. The name is thus an eponym.

But if the stone is named for Obsius, why isn't it obsian (rather than obsidian)? Simply because a scribe, copying Pliny's work, erroneously insered the -di-. Forms both with and without -di- appear in early manuscripts of Pliny, and also in English and French. In each case the form without -di- seems to appear earlier. (1398: ye stoon osianus is y-rekened among kynde of glas, and yis stoon is som tyme grene and som tyme blak and is clere and bright.). But the form with the -di- has prevailed in English.

[Note: OED instead accounts for the -di- by claiming that the Roman name Obsius had the alternate form Obsidius. But even the Compact OED adopts the 'scribal error' theory. I know of no evidence that the gentleman's name had two forms (can anyone supply?). "Two forms", it seems to me, is just a convenient invention to explain the stone's name.]
October 15, 2005, 20:10
Two stars shine far more brightly than anything else in the night sky (except the moon), and can even cast a very faint shadow on a moonless night. They naturally drew attention, as do all bright objects.

The one that concerns us appears only in the east and, more importantly, appears only in the hours near the end of the night. Thus, it announces that dawn is nearing well before the first glimmerings could be seen --- which is rather useful when you have no clocks to provide that information. Accordingly, as far back as Homer the Greeks had named the star it from their words for "light-bringer" or "dawn-light bringer" (Odyssey 13: When the bright star that heralds the approach of dawn began to show … ). The Romans named it with similar Latin.

The Latin name appears in St. Jerome's Latin translation of the Bible, called the Vulgate, prepared about 400 A.D. and the dominant Bible for a millenium. At Isaiah 14:12 the star-name is used allusively, referring to a great and shining king and to his downfall. The passage reads roughly, "How are you fallen from heaven, O morning-star."

Now one could read this as simply, "Lo, how the mighty are fallen." But a "fall from heaven" also suggests the story that Satan is an angel who had fallen from heaven. The early Christians interpreted Isaiah 14:12 as a parable of Satan's fall, and took the word Latin word "morning-star" to be a name for Satan. Thus the name of a bright star became a name of Satan. That term, as you may have guessed, is Lucifer.

– the Devil

Note: in the interest of brevity, I gloss over fascinating matters of astronomy, linguistics, history and theology, but I hope to present them on the board. For example, who misread the bible? Did Jerome himself read this passage as referring to Satan (and use lucifer to mean Satan), or was that reading created by those who came later?
October 15, 2005, 21:11
"lucifer" continuation: astronomy

These two very-bright celestial objects are so bright that they've been mistaken for an airplane or a UFO! During WWII US fighterplanes upon one, thinking it was a Japanese plane. And Georgia governor (later US President) Jimmy Carter forwarded to the state police a UFO report, which turned out to be one of these stars. Or at least, so says The Planets by Dava Sobel.

I've said that one of them appears in the east, in the hours just before dawn. The other, reciprocally, appears only in the west, and only only in the early evening.

Each of these will be seen nightly for several months, and then for a time no longer appear above the night horizon, in a recurring cycles. There's nothing unusual about this; many stars are seen, but then sink below the night horizon for months, only to re-arise later in a yearly cycle. But the unique oddity of our two very-bright stars is that their cycle is longer, about 584 days. During that time the two stars never overlap: one appears for several months, and then (after a interval where neither appears) the other takes its turn for a like period.

Perhaps this oddity was the clue by which the Greeks ascertained that these two stars are in fact the same object. In any event, they had reached this conclusion by about 500 B.C.

This object today goes by the name of the planet Venus. I cannot say whether earlier Greeks knew that the objects were planets, but even if they did, Homer's usage shows that the word 'star' was nonetheless used.
October 16, 2005, 06:32
The Greek plānēs means literally 'wanderer' (from plānaō 'to wonder, roam, stray'), as the stars (planets, satellites, and stars in our modern terminology) moved in the night-time sky.

Ceci n'est pas un seing.
October 16, 2005, 10:07
To the ancients the planets were those 7 bodies that wandered the sky in the region of the ecliptic: the Sun, Moon, and five visible planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Perhaps another reason for the significance of the number 7.
October 16, 2005, 20:28
gruntled – pleased, satisfied, contented

A grunt is the sound of a pig, or a human sound of disgust. How then did gruntled come to have rather the opposite meaning of "pleased, satisfied, contented"? It comes down to a misunderstanding of a prefix, which was added in one sense and then removed in another sense.

In English the double negative isn't impermissible in certain constructions (such as "not impermissible"), and it means a positive; the "not" negates the "im-". That, however, is a new development. Until a few centuries ago English, like many other languages, freely allowed the double negative as an emphatic negative; "not not" meant "very much not". Similarly, though the prefixes dis- and de- can negate the root (disband, dishonor, decapitate, deodorant), they can instead simply emphasize it, especially if the root itself is already negative. Examples are distort, dissimulate and disturb (meaning "to completely twist, pretend or simulate, and make turbulent"), and denigrate, denude, delinquent, despoil and define ("to completely blacken, make nude, leave, spoil, and bound or confine").

The two dissimilar senses created confusion with today's word. From grunt (a sound of dissatisfaction, or to make that sound) came the old word gruntle (a small or frequent grunt, or to make that sound, that is, to grumble, murmur, or complain). Around 1682 the dis- prefix was added to intensify the word, and thus disgruntled emphasized the sulky mood and ill-humor.

But eventually "gruntle" fell out of use and was forgotten, so that one who knows that dis- can be a negator might think that disgrunted and gruntled are opposites. P.G. Woodhouse did exactly that in 1938, re-creating gruntled as the opposite of disgruntled rather than a less-emphatic synonym.Gruntle has thus reversed its original meaning!

(Sidebar: The word demerit has much the same history. Its original Latin form meant "merit", with the prefix being for emphasis. But "the prefix appears to have been taken in a privative sense" (OED), and so in medieval Latin the word meant not "merit" but "fault". The French equivalent word was for a time used in both senses, which must have been highly confusing for the French!)
October 17, 2005, 20:00
'lucificer' continued -- linguistics #1

The morning star appears in the east in the morning. The Greeks named it after its timing, calling it 'dawn bringer' -- the term Homer uses is Eosphoros. But their name for the evening star refers not to its timing but to its position: Hesperus, from their word for west. Why this discrepency? As far as I know, no one has posed that question.

My theory is that for the evening star, timing was simply of no particular importance. You don't need a star to tell you that day is about to end, for you can tell that quite easily from the low position of the sun.

In contrast, at night there is no sun giving you a signal that the night is about to end. So if a star gave that indication, that would be an important fact about the star, and naturally the characteristic for which it would be named.
October 18, 2005, 20:46
Let's go back to the phony word esquivalience,, which was put into a dictionary to catch copyright violators. What do you call bits of false data, so used?

Oddly, there seems to be no word for them. They were called "Mountweazels" in The New Yorker magazine which exposed 'esquivalience', but no one else has used that name.* Perhaps the best term is copyright trap: But as the quote indicates, that copyright trap seems to be part of the lingo of map-publishing, rather than publishing in general. Though many web-sites use the term more broadly, I've found only one print-publication that did so. (Chicago Tribune, Sep. 21, 2005, discussing 'esquivalience')

Copyrights are not the only area where false or variant data can be used to trap. For example:

honeytokencomputer security: a database entry that has no one has any proper reason to use or access. Hence, any usage signals improper use of the database.canary trap: Clancy invented this term, but it does not seem to have been taken up.
*"Mountweazel" refers to a phoney article in a 1975 encyclopedia, telling of photographer Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, who died tragically "at 31 in an explosion while on assignment for Combustibles magazine."