LiteratEye #14: Detecting the Dark Side of Language

Here’s the fourteenth installment of LiteratEye, a series found only on The Art of the Prank Blog, by W.J. Elvin III, editor and publisher of FIONA: Mysteries & Curiosities of Literary Fraud & Folly and the LitFraud blog.

LiteratEye #14: Detecting the Dark Side of Language
By W.J. Elvin III
May 15, 2009

wwiip6-200It’s 2 o’clock in the morning in London as my email comes breezing in to interrupt John Olsson’s musings. Olsson interests us because he’s an expert at digging out the secrets of deceptive documents, anything from anonymous hate mail to plagiarized books.

My note found him puzzling over hidden clues in regard to the character of Bernard Madoff, the big Wall Street toad whose secret life involved scamming multi-millions from clients.

Might a keen observer have spotted what Madoff was up to, before it all fell down? Olsson pondered the name, “Madoff.” Odd, the wanderings of the mind in the wee small hours. “Made Off”¦,” he supposed. “Bernard made off”¦”

Well, John, maybe you’re on to something. And, believe me, you can throw LiteratEye readers a long one and they’ll be out there to catch it. But we better at least start a little closer to the line of scrimmage.

And so, down to business. In Olsson’s case, business is The Forensic Linguistics Institute and his studies are usually of a very serious nature. You can get a fairly good idea of what it’s all about from his new book, Wordcrime.

Forensics could be described as the use of scientific methods to ascertain hidden facts. Much of Olsson’s work concerns legal forensics – things like putting a person at a crime scene by deciphering their coded text messages — rather than the literary side. He views the field, which he pioneered, as “an instrument to prevent miscarriages of justice.”

Though much of the legal side has application to the literary, his analysis of Dan Brown’s whopping bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, in particular intrigued me. Olsson was hired by author Lew Perdue in an effort to demonstrate that Brown plagiarized extensively from three of Perdue’s books written long before “Code.”

It’s not at all uncommon when an author hits the big-time, someone shouts: “Hey, you stole my story.” And there are instances where the shout rings true. Lewis Perdue isn’t exactly a shark out to bloody up Dan Brown’s pool; he’s an accomplished writer and best-selling author, as well as an academic, political consultant and vintner.

But after a long hard fight through the courts, the U.S. Supreme Court decided against Perdue.

Reading Olsson’s account, you have to wonder how in the world the court could have done that. In the book he takes a gentle approach: “You decide.” But he has been less reserved: “This is the most blatant example of in-your-face plagiarism I’ve ever seen. There are literally hundreds of parallels,” he told the New York Post.

A fairly mind-boggling chart illustrating many of those parallels may be found in his report.

Olsson’s initial analysis was comparative, a matter of “literal and conceptual similarities.” From there the effort became more complex. We learn, for instance, that the clever plagiarist does not copy directly but will convert the original into words of his or her own. There is a problem with that.

If the original uses language as most people would use it, then the plagiarist has to rephrase using less familiar words. So, for example, “a comfortable sofa” might become something odd, like “a welcoming davenport.” Thus, peculiar use of words – Olsson terms such words “second line language” — may be a clue to plagiarism.

Well, it’s only fair to leave the bulk of the insights to the book and its readers. Let’s get back to Olsson. Is he a man with a mission? Here’s how he answered that one: “I sincerely trust that the methods I have developed, only some of which I reveal in my book, will be of assistance to investigators worldwide in their never-ending fight to catch criminals.”

Well, ask a noble question, get a noble answer.

Another thing I wondered about was whether he might not be making criminals smarter by revealing his methods? “My great ambition for forensic linguistics,” he replied, “is that it will raise the IQ of the common criminal to such a degree that this person will no longer wish to commit crime.”

I should have just thrown in the towel at that point but I plunged boldly ahead. One of the great literary mysteries of all time concerns Shakespeare: Who was he? Or more accurately, who wrote the plays attributed to him?

Olsson’s reply set me to wondering if he might be subtly inviting me to put my inane questions in my pipe and smoke them. Sometimes the affiliation with leads subjects to suspect things aren’t all on the up-and-up. They don’t realize they’re dealing with a serious, educational project. Well, sometimes it is. “William Shakespeare was a great playwright and poet. Many others have tried to claim authorship of his works. Close investigation, however, reveals that all of them were also called William Shakespeare.”

Hmmm. What say we just let sleeping authors get their hard-earned rest and ramble back to pay another visit to the Da Vinci controversy?

It’s a small matter but telling. Leonardo Da Vinci wrote a book,The Codex Leicester. It was produced on linen, as was the practice in those days. Perdue wrote, mistakenly, that the work was done on parchment. And then, years later, in Brown’s book, there it is again, the parchment error. In Word Crime, Olsson says he searched far and wide for a similar error in any text other than, first Perdue, then Brown, and found “¦ none.


(Copyright 2009 WJE, exclusive to The Art of the Prank, for reprint rights contact

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