The publication of an anonymously written op-ed piece in The New York Times in early September brought to mind the idea of a “forensic linguist” or word detective. The term “forensic linguist” was coined in the late 1960s, though the work of word detectives goes back many years.
In the US, the first crime solved by forensic linguists happened in 1927. A girl was kidnapped in upstate New York. Her family, the McClure family, received a ransom note addressed to the girl’s uncle, Duncan McLure, the only member of the family to spell his name McLure. Yet the ransom note was addressed to Duncan McLure. Police thought it odd that the kidnapper would know that the uncle spelled his name differently from the rest of the family. They figured he was in on the kidnapping. Sure enough, the uncle eventually confessed.
The case of the Unabomber was solved in 1995 with the help of a forensic linguist. A man dubbed the “Unabomber” was wanted by the FBI for a series of bombings which killed three people and injured more than a dozen over many years. This unidentified terrorist wrote a “manifesto” explaining his beliefs and promised to stop the killings if the manifesto were published. It was. One reader thought he recognized the writing style in the manifesto as the same style as of his reclusive brother. An FBI profiler, James Fitzgerald, studied the manifesto, comparing the words and writing style with other known writings by the man’s brother. The FBI brought the linguistic findings to a federal court which granted a search warrant for the recluse’s cabin. Information in the cabin corroborated the suspicion that the recluse was the Unabomber. Theodore Kaczinski was arrested and imprisoned, ending a 17-year hunt.
1996 was an election year with President Bill Clinton running for a second term as President. A new novel told the inside story of a southern Presidential contender from the perspective of a campaign insider. Its author, “Anonymous,” rocketed to the top of the best seller list. The hunt was on for the author’s identity. A Vassar College English professor, Donald Foster, used the skills of a forensic linguist to narrow down the possible writers. Foster tallied word frequency in the controversial novel. By comparing the result with word frequency in the writings of likely authors, Foster correctly identified the anonymous author as Joe Klein, a news magazine columnist. At first Klein denied it, but later comparisons of portions of the hand-written manuscript with other handwritten work by Klein proved him to be the author, and he eventually admitted authorship.
Another example of forensic linguistics was in finding the author of a 2013 critically acclaimed novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling. The Sunday Times of London’s art editor suspected that Robert Gilbraith, listed as the author, might be a pen name of J. K. Rowling. The Times hired a forensic linguist, Patrick Juola, to investigate. Juola searched by computer for data related to adjacent words, to the most commonly used words, and to the use of long and short words, among other searches. This gave him a “fingerprint” of the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling. He did the same kind of search of The Casual Vacancy, a known book by Rowling, and of the final Harry Potter book. Then he compared that data with similar searches of books by three other female novelists. The results showed that Rowling was highly likely to be the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling. With all this evidence, Rowling confessed that she was indeed the author.
Will the identity of the anonymous op-ed writer be known soon? If the original writing wasn’t edited much, then most likely the author will become known. The computer analysis of J. K. Rowling’s writing took only a half hour. Plug in the right information, and a match will show.
But if the writer purposely disguised his or her usual style, the task becomes harder. And if that disguised style was heavily edited, the task becomes harder still. And if the author denies authorship (and many of those suspected to be the author already have), then the author may go unknown for years, even decades, as did Woodward and Bernstein’s Deep Throat informant during the Watergate investigation in the 1970s.
For forensic linguists, it’s easier to eliminate suspects than it is to prove authorship.