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When dictionaries get it wrong

30th April 2015 - Paul Anthony Jones


Word DropsIn Word Drops: A Sprinkling of Linguistic Curiosities, Paul Anthony Jones takes on a glorious unpredictable journey through the world of language, revealing some of the many unexpected connections and weird juxtapositions that make the world of words such a delight. Amid a thousand different linguistic curiosities he ranges from Tudor England to the First World War and from German to Navajo.


Dictionaries are usually regarded as the final arbiters on langauage, deciding arguments about anything from etymology to questionable seven-letter words in Scrabble, but, as Paul reveals here, even the most reputable of them sometimes get it plain wrong.




When an updated edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary was released in 1934, it contained an unassuming imposter: the word dord. During the dictionary’s compilation, one of the editors responsible for all its mathematical and scientific terms had left a note on an alphabetical index card requesting that the word 'density' be added to a list of terms for which the letter D is used as an abbreviation. The card read simply 'D or d: density'– but, unfortunately, it was misread as a word in its own right, 'dord', and mistakenly filed amongst all the dictionary’s other headwords.


DordThe oversight went unnoticed, and as the misfiled 'D or d' index card was passed from editor to editor, dord was given its own part of speech (noun) and even its own phonetic pronunciation ('dôrd'), until finally, when the dictionary was released in 1934, there on page 771, between Dorcopsis (a genus of kangaroo from Papua New Guinea) and dore (golden-coloured), was dord, described as a term from physics and chemistry and defined as a synonym for ‘density’. Incredibly the error wasn’t spotted until five years later, when an editor noticed that the entry for dord lacked an etymology and investigated the oversight. The imposter was promptly deleted from the typeset (with the definition for the nearby doré furnace extended to fill in the gap), but it wasn’t until 1947 that dord finally disappeared from all print versions of Webster’s Dictionary.


Words like dord that come into existence by accident or through misinterpretation are known as 'ghost words', or nihilartikels. The problem is by no means new—even the great Samuel Johnson included the erroneous word foupe, meaning 'to drive with sudden impetuosity', in his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755 after he misread an archaic 'long-S', ſ , for an italic lowercase f; the true word should actually have been soupe. Likewise, when a translation of Homer’s Odyssey by Alexander Pope was used as the basis of a Philology of the English Language in 1820, a hyphen was accidentally omitted from Pope’s 'phantome-nations of the dead', and an erroneous new word, phantomnation, was listed in the dictionary alongside the definition 'a multitude of spectres'.


Despite the potential embarrassment for the editors involved, however, ghost words like these have an unexpected and surprisingly beneficial consequence, by providing a sure-fire means of protecting their works against plagiarism. As Webster’s editors eventually discovered, any other dictionary that included dord among its entries, for instance, must have copied the mistake from their dictionary as only they knew of the oversight. Soon other editors and lexicographers were following suit, intentionally adding invented entries to their dictionaries and glossaries as copyright traps for plagiarists.


Webster’s New 20th Century Dictionary in 1943, for instance, included the fake word jungftak, defined as 'a Persian bird, the male of which only has one wing on the right side, and the female only one wing on the left side'. Likewise a 1975 edition of the New Columbia Encyclopedia featured a fictitious entry for a 'Lilian Virginia Mountweazel', who was described as a noted fountain designer known for her photographs of rural American mailboxes. And even as recently as 2005, the New Oxford American Dictionary included the ghost word esquivalience - appropriately defined as 'the wilful avoidance of one’s responsibilities'.


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