LEX: Lodestar and other smoking guns

Melissa Martinez

by Mellissa Martinez

There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about anonymity in this era of the internet, video surveillance and smartphones. Although some are simply worried about being tracked by advertisers, others have more deliberate reasons to remain nameless. 

Surprisingly, one major factor that prevents anonymity does not stem from new technology or sleuthing computer programs. Rather, it is something that’s been around for over 100,000 years—language. No matter how hard we try, or how many times we adjust our privacy settings, block cookies and change passwords, we reveal ourselves through the language we use.

This concept was at the forefront of a major media story this month when the New York Times published a scathing op-ed from an anonymous source who claimed to be a top official in the Trump administration. There was considerable effort put into trying to determine the author and many settled on Vice President Mike Pence because of one obscure word—lodestar.

If you don’t know what a ‘lodestar’ is, you’re not alone. The dictionary lists it as an archaic noun, which describes a star that leads or guides. It can also be used metaphorically to refer to one who serves as a model or guide.

When the unknown author referred to John McCain as “a lodestar for restoring honor to public life and our national dialogue” readers took a collective pause. Who uses that word anyway? Thanks to the permanency of our every move on the internet, it was not difficult to find out.

It took political blogger Dan Bloom no time at all to uncover the fact that Mike Pence used the word exactly a year ago in a speech at the UN; two months later, he dropped ‘lodestar’ again at a leadership award dinner; and just two months after that, Mr. Pence announced that our budget would once again serve as a lodestar to other nations. Mr. Bloom writes, “from what I can tell, Pence has been using the word lodestar since 2001.”

Does this mean that Mr. Pence wrote the piece? In the minds of many, the answer is yes. But, here’s the trick. Linguistic clues can also be used to throw people off the scent, or rather onto another scent. Presuming that the op-ed scribe had some insight into this fact, he or she may have purposefully added the word to the document to get this exact result.

Although the debate over the author has quieted and Mr. Pence seems to have made it through without too much finger-pointing, the question remains relevant: how do we reveal ourselves with the words we use? According to one expert in forensic linguistics, Dr. David Wright, it is possible to identify the author of an email by small changes in just a few words.

His research, which was done to address the challenges faced by forensic linguists, analyzed thousands of emails from 12 office employees. Using algorithms and statistical analyses, they were able to identify the author of each letter 95 percent of the time when the emails were longer than 1000 words.

They found that the way in which we join small words together is unique to all of us and is “influenced by the different speech and writing we are exposed to in our lifetimes.” For example, although many of the emails strung together the words “please review,” one employee had the habit of writing “please review and let’s discuss.” This particular combination gave him away.

Forensic linguists have long been relying on words to strip people of desired anonymity. One of the more famous cases was Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. An article in The New Yorker points out that his use of the terms ‘broad’ and ‘negro’ was a clue to his age and, like the author of the NYT piece, he used unusual, out of circulation expressions like ‘chimerical,’ ‘anomic’ and ‘cool-headed logicians.’

The same article points to a fascinating case where the linguist determined the identity of a kidnapper after reading the ransom letter, which stated: “No kops! Come alone!! Put it in the green trash kan on the devil strip at the corner 18th and Carlson.” The forensic linguist asked the police if one of their suspects was an educated man from Akron, Ohio. ‘Devil strip’ is a term used only in Akron for the patch of grass between the sidewalk and street and replacing two ‘Cs’ for ‘Ks’ is an obvious attempt to appear illiterate.

It’s not only murderers, kidnappers and presidential critics who seek anonymity. Students have been known to want to hide their identity—or, rather, the identity of the authors of their papers. Although it’s hard to imagine, it’s linguistically unlikely that two people will create the exact same string of words, even when writing on the same topic. This is why plagiarism detectors, such as Turnitin, look for strings of words within assignments that are identical. Each paper that gets uploaded into Turnitin becomes a part of the repository constantly increasing the potential for matches.

We haven’t gotten to the point of relying on Turnitin-type detectors for anonymous NYT sources, but as long as we continue communicating with language, those who wish to remain anonymous should think carefully before placing metaphorical pen to paper. Or maybe we should reevaluate our approval of anonymity when it comes to politics. Perhaps what we really need are a few more lodestars in the public arena who aren’t afraid to lead the way and stand behind what they say.


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