Vol. 4, Issue 5, May 16, 2006
Education for the Otiose
Random Perspective

Did You Hear "Gullible" Isn't In The Dictionary? This Time, It Really Isn't

A classic prank has achieved an ironic reality as the word "gullible" was clandestinely removed from a popular online dictionary sometime last month.

MSN Encarta is a Microsoft-run website that includes an encyclopedia, thesaurus, and a dictionary of 100,000 words. Late last week, the omission was brought to light in an article on Cnet.com, and Microsoft confirmed the story on Monday.

"This was an isolated incident which apparently had a minimal impact on the Encarta site," said Microsoft spokesman Tom Pilla. "A patch is being designed and the vandalism is in the process of being repaired. In addition, I want to stress that we received virtually no user complaints about the Encarta experience during the time the hack was in place."

According to Cnet, the entry for the word gullible was removed from Encarta's dictionary entirely, along with the words credulous, na´ve, innocent, unsophisticated, unsuspecting, wide-eyed, yoyo, and dittohead, among others.

"There are two remarkable things about this particular hack," said Cnet reporter Dan Goodin. "First, the perpetrators didn't substitute anything untoward or insulting for the missing words: people searching for the term "gullible" simply found no entry. That bespeaks a certain sophistication and maturity not often found among your typical black hat. Second, literally no one noticed this for weeks. Although, to be fair, few people typically complain about dictionaries. It's like complaining about the phone book. Why would you bother?"

Also remarkable is the fact that while Microsoft claims to have reposted the missing entries, the words are still missing from Encarta as of press time.

"It appears that either the patch didn't work and the hackers are still able to get in and tamper with the website, or that they succeeded in secretly installing a program to re-delete the entries on a periodic basis."

Goodin cites a confidential source within Microsoft alleging that gullible is actually the most frequently looked up term in Encarta for March and April, edging out recent favorites "pandemic", "integrity", and "nuculur". Microsoft dismisses Goodin's claims, but he is no stranger to legal threats from the software giant, having tangled with the company and won in 1999 over an article citing a leaked internal email.

"People are posting this all over the boards and emailing this to their friends," he said. "Although it kind of takes away from the punchline... the fun part about getting people to check whether gullible is in the dictionary is that moment of realization when they understand they've been duped. Now, people are just saying 'huh, what do you know, it's not in there after all.'"

Microsoft disputes Cnet's claims and insists that Encarta is as reliable as ever.

"You can't pay attention to rumors like this," said Pilla. "Just because you hear something on the internet doesn't mean it's true. You'd be surprised how many people forget that."

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