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October 2005 Archives

Words of Fakeitude or Error: esquivalience; ghost word; obsidian; Lucifer; gruntled (demerit); copyright trap (honeytoken, canary trap)

Boo! for Halloween: bugaboo; boomerang kid; calaboose; boomslang; boohai; booboisie; boobocracy; boot hill



Words of Fakeitude or Error

Today's word, as defined in the New Oxford American Dictionary ["NOAD"]:

esquivalience –
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'.]



Ms. McKean give us one reason why a writer might deliberately put an error in his/her work.Ή 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 (dτrd), 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.


In this class [of philological literary blunders] may be mentioned (1) Ghost words, as they are called by Professor Skeat--words, that is, which have been registered, but which never really existed; (2) Real words that exist through a mistake; … Professor Skeat … gave a most interesting account of some hundred ghost words, or words which have no real existence.
– Henry Wheatley, Literary Blunders


Wheatley also relates 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".


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.]


Note: brown type in this post is a digression, but may be of interest

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

I gloss over fascinating matters of astronomy, linguistics, history and theology, but I hope to add some of them below. 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?


"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.


'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.


gruntled – pleased, satisfied, contented. [The precise opposite of its original meaning.]

A grunt is the sound of a pig, or a human sound of disgust. How then did gruntled come to have an opposite meaning? It comes down to misunderstanding 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-". But that 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.


… I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.
– P. G. Wodehouse, Code of Woosters


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!)


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:


It is in order to avoid having to prove access that mapmakers will sometimes include a fictitious geographical feature in their maps; if that feature (what is called in the trade a "copyright trap") is duplicated in someone else's map, the inference of copying is compelling.
– 7th Cir. Court of Appeals, in Bucklew v. Hawkins, Ash, Baptie & Co.


But as the quote indicates, that copyright trap seems to be part of the lingo of map-publishing, not 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:

honeytoken – computer 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.

[In hospitals] only certain authorized people have access to patient data. A bogus medical record called "John F. Kennedy" is loaded into the database. [It] has no true value because there is no real patient with that name. Instead, the record is a honeytoken. If any employee attempts to access this record, you most likely have an employee violating patient privacy.
– Lance Spitzner July 17, 2003, on the web


canary trap: Clancy invented this term, but it does not seem to have been taken up.

"What devil is this Canary Trap?" "Well, you know about all the problems CIA has with leaks. I came up with an idea. Each section [of a report] has a summary paragraph, written in a fairly dramatic fashion. Each summary paragraph has six different versions, and the mixture of those paragraphs is unique to each numbered copy of the paper. The reason the summary paragraphs are so—well, lurid, I guess—is to entice a reporter to quote them verbatim in the public media. If he quotes something from two or three of those paragraphs, we know which copy he saw and, therefore, who leaked it."
– Tom Clancy, Patriot Games

*"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."



Boo! for Halloween

I like to have a special theme for Halloween, the time for ghouls, ghosts and other things that sneak up behind you and yell, "Boo!" What could be more appropriate than a theme of 'boo' words? Some even have a meaning that is appropriately chilling for Halloween. For example:

bugaboo – 1. a bogeyman to frighten children. 2a. a recurring or persistent problem; 2b. a subject of anxious (and typically excessive) concern


sense 1: For the cooped-up children of bomb-weary Baghdad, referendum day was a winner, no matter what the final outcome. "Latifiyah!" the growing ring of girls belted out, evoking the name of a Sunni Arab stronghold, since 2003 a bugaboo to scare children. Faisal Mohammed, 11, said he hoped the new constitution would bring security. "We fear the explosions," he said. "We want to go out and play."
– Washington Post, Oct. 16, 2005

sense 2a: Every once in a while I thought I was catching on to the art of writing a news story, yet, even when I felt I might be getting the hang of it in terms of speed and efficiency, the top still seemed so terribly far away. Efficiency was my special bugaboo.
– Katharine Graham, Personal History

sense 2b: Everybody can't be as competent as you, my dear. We must help the others. It's the moral duty of intellectual leaders. What I mean is we ought to lose that bugaboo of being scared of the word compulsion . It's not compulsion when it's for a good cause.
–Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead

sense 2a? 2b? … security has long been a bugaboo for wireless information in the financial services arena …
– Michael Sisk, Bank Technology News, Oct. 2005


Your children have grown, and the last has finally left the home and off to college. It is bittersweet, but you have adjusted to having the TV available, to the car at your free disposal, to evenings free from worry when it is late and a child is still out, and to the delicious absence of popular "music"! These joys are now part of your settled life-style.

And then, at Halloween, there appears at your door the most horrifying monster imaginable.

boomerang kid – a young person past high-school age who, after college or a period of independence, returns to live in the parental home


Once upon a time, only the prodigal son or daughter went back to the parental home. If you were over 21, it was a social stigma for you to slink back to the bedroom where your teddy bear still sat in pride of place … No more. Nowadays, even young men and women who boast a job and a partner are shamelessly moving back to Mum and Dad. … A recent survey shows that nearly 50 per cent of adults who own their own property still regard their parents' houses as their real homes, while one in 10 people aged from 35 to 44 still takes washing and ironing back to Mummy.
…beyond the relief from bills, mortgage and rentals, moving back under the parental roof offers the boomerang kid an emotional connection …
– Cristina Odone, The Observer, March 24, 2002 (edited)


Folks overly joyous in their Halloween activities may find themselves in the calaboose.

calaboose – a jail
[from Sp. calabozo "dungeon ", via Louisiana French. Chiefly S & W U.S.]


Anyway, they had so many books in Libertyville, they used the books for toilet paper in the jail. They got me on a Friday, late in the afternoon, so I couldn't have a hearing in court until Monday. So I sat there in the calaboose for two days, with nothing to do but read my toilet paper.
– Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions


boomslang – a large and dangerous snake, up to 6 feet long and one of the most venomous snakes in the world.

Boomslangs often hide in trees. Makes you a bit nervous about walking under trees as you trick or treat, doesn't it? But most of you can relax: the boomslang is native to southern Africa. By the way, according to J.K. Rowling, shredded boomslang skin is one of the key ingredients of the complicated Polyjuice Poison.


A reader notes: boohai - an out of the way, remote or non-existent place; often in "up the boohai" to mean lost, or "up the boohai shooting pukakas" meaning lost, possibly in the head. (Tsuwm's Dictionary) Has anyone heard of that before?


Two delicious terms, coined by H.L. Mencken, which deserve much greater currency:

booboisie – the general public – implies that its members are stupid, uncultured boobs inferior to the speaker
[blend of boob and bourgeoisie]

The New York Times felt it needed to explain why Rush Limbaugh's book spent more than a year at the top of its best-seller list. One reviewer helpfully spelled out that the book appealed "to a part of middle America--call it the silent majority or the American People or the booboisie." It is for the booboisie – those who reject the dogma of Northeast liberalism – that Ann Coulter [writes].
– Timothy P. Carney, Human Events, July 1, 2002

[Bill Clinton] has continued to sell both the elites and the Booboisie the incredible line that diddling employees … is a matter to be adjudicated not by the public or the legal authorities, but by his wife.
– Thomas W. Hazlett, Reason, Nov. 1998

boobocracy – that same public, viewed as a social or political force

Consider the civil servant (there's an oxymoron!) Have you suffered from the governmental bureaucrat who gums up the works with such infuriating laziness or incompetence that one wonders if it might be malicious? Wouldn't boobocrat be a fine term for such a one?

… traditional middleclass prejudices against the "boobocracy" …
– Steven Kelman, Commentary, Feb. 1969

From [Andrew] Sullivan & Co. 's perspective, Bush's public courting of the … fundamentalist boobocracy suggests a want of taste. Sullivan can't come out and say that, so he is contenting himself by being pessimistic and snippy from the sidelines.
– Jay Currie, The American Spectator, Feb. 11, 2004


Our final boo-word provides a transition to our next theme, for it is a toponym – that is, a word derived from a place-name.

boot hill – a graveyard, esp. one whose occupants died in a violent fight (but note 2nd quote)

The consignment of Comanche to the Boot Hill of Army research and development (R&D) projects was another sad ending to an Army program that had once seemed so necessary and so promising.
– Frederick J. Kroesen, From Cheyenne to Comanche, Army, May 2005

It was only a matter of time before Scotland Yard Commissioner Sir Ian Blair's shoot-to-kill policy came home to haunt him. … policemen under pressure will turn quickly from constable to cowboy. An innocent man dead on a tube train floor with his head shot away while Britain's top policeman furiously tries to stop anyone asking why. That is Boot Hill justice and has nothing whatsoever to do with protecting freedom.
– Richard Stott, Sunday Mirror, Aug. 8, 2005

The railroad boomtown of Dodge City, Kansas, founded 1872, was in its earliest years notorious for its violence. "Dodge City has been quoted all over the United States as the most wicked town in existence," reminisced a founder forty years later. In fact, though he himself would "insist that Dodge City was not the worst place on earth", his tongue was probably in his cheek, for he admitted that it was hard to find a worse. ("at last I have heard of a town which was equal to, if not worse than Dodge City").

In early Dodge City not many folk died peaceably of natural causes, in their beds and bedclothes. Those who came to reside in local cemetery had often died in gunfights – that is, fully dressed, "with their boots on". The cemetery thus became known as "boot hill", and the name spread to other wild-west towns.

By the way, Dodge City was the setting of the long-running TV show Gunsmoke.