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Ghost Word

Rumor:   For five years, Webster's New International Dictionary mistakenly included an entry for dord, a word that did not exist.


Origins:   Given the tremendous amount of detailed information that must be assembled and managed in producing the average dictionary, it's a testament to the skill and care of those who compile and edit those reference works that errors don't creep into them more often than they do.

Dictionary-makers make mistakes from time to time though, and one of the more notorious lexicographical errors was the appearance of the ghost word dord in the second edition of Webster's New International Dictionary in 1934. The word dord was listed on page 771, between the entries for Dorcopsis (a type of small kangaroo) and doré (golden in color), as a noun meaning density in the fields of Physics and Chemistry:


But dord was truly a ghost word: a spirit entry that was not part of the English language, and for which Webster's offered no etymology or example of use. So how did this linguistic specter come to haunt the dictionary?

In the first edition of Webster's, entries for abbreviations and words had been intermingled: the abbreviation lb (for "pound"), for example, would be found
immediately after the entry for the word lazy. In the second edition, however, abbreviations were supposed to be collected in a separate section at the back of the dictionary. In 1931, a card had been prepared bearing the notation "D or d, cont/ density" to indicate the next edition of the dictionary should include listings for D and d as abbreviations of the word density. Somehow the card became misdirected during the editorial process and landed in the "words" pile rather than the "abbreviations" pile, and so the "D or d" notation ended up being set as the single word dord, a synonym for density.

As Philip Babcock Gove, editor-in-chief of the third edition of Webster's New International Dictionary wrote in a 1954 article:
As soon as someone else entered the pronunciation, dord was given the slap on the back that sent breath into its being. Whether the etymologist ever got a chance to stifle it, there is no evidence. It simply has no etymology. Thereafter, only a proofreader had final opportunity at the word, but as the proof passed under his scrutiny he was at the moment not so alert and suspicious as usual.
Not until five years later did an editor note the out-of-place entry for dord and set in motion the process that exorcised this spectral entry from future printings. The ghost word was banished from Webster's with hardly anyone's having noticed its presence, but it continued to rematerialize in the dictionaries of careless compilers for years afterwards.

Last updated:   4 January 2015

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