“Dord”: Ghost Word in Merriam-Webster

Among the things I am most embarrassed to admit about myself is the fact that spelling has never been my forte. Don’t get me wrong: I love words; I love etymology. I can tell you the meaning of qualtagh and I can give you a term for describing the space between two windows (interfenestration), or saying to someone that he/she is guilty of the same deeds he/she has accused someone else of (tu quoque – far more elegant than “pot calling kettle black”). I can break down infracaninophile to explain why it means ‘supporter of underdogs’ (infra=under, canine=dog, phile=someone who likes the subject in question), and I can tell you how the German word for when a man makes a peace offering to a woman after a fight – drachenfutter – literally translates into ‘dragon fodder. But I cannot spell receive without the help of spell check. Or unnecessary. Or – for that matter – embarrassed. (Yeah, you really thought all Indians have a spelling bee champion in them, didn’t you?)

Makes SO much sense.

Makes SO much sense. (Image source.)

Anyway, to cut a long story short, given my specific challenges, I was very excited when I realized I could download the eleventh edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary onto my Kindle. I spent a couple of hours looking up words – some of which I already knew – because I couldn’t get over the fact that it was so easy, and that I hadn’t done this before. And when Boyfriend strolled into the room I waved my newest obsession in his face too, expecting a similar level of excitement. (Sometimes I can’t help but wonder, do I even know him?!)

“Merriam-Webster?” He gave the words on the screen a quick glance. Then this:

“Did you know that for several years Merriam-Webster included a word in their dictionary that didn’t really exist and had no meaning?”

It’s a very interesting story. In 1934, Merriam-Webster added the word “Dord” to the second edition of their New International Dictionary, listing it as a scientific term that meant ‘density’. And as you can see, the word had no etymological citations or examples of usage, which was very unusual for Merriam-Webster.

Merriam-Webster New International Dictionary, Second Edition. Image source.

Merriam-Webster New International Dictionary, Second Edition. (Image source.)

How the hell did this happen? Well, what can I say, it was a different age…

Back in the 1930s, potential entries for words would be handwritten or typed out on little slips of paper, and passed between editors for approval. It was also the convention to leave a space between each letter of the word, so the accent indications could be included. In 1931 one such slip arrived at the desk of an editor, with the following inscription: “D or d, cont./density.” The editor who sent it had actually written it out accurately: he meant for the letter d – both upper and lower cases – to be included in the dictionary as a denotation for ‘density’ in physics or chemistry. The editor reviewing it, however, assumed that a space between o and r had been mistakenly left out, and that the entry was in fact for the word “dord,” meaning density. The word was approved, and slipped right into the 1934 edition. And here’s what’s more: it took five years for someone to notice that “dord” wasn’t a real word, and another eight years to actually remove it from the dictionary. In 1947 Merriam-Webster finally rid itself of it.

The term for a false word erroneously entered in a dictionary is “ghost word.” I personally like “dord,” and feel a bit sentimentally attachment to it, considering it stayed in the dictionary for so many years. It feels somewhat unceremonious to just discard it, as though it wouldn’t mean a thing. (Ha!)

All right, all right, I’m being a bit nerdy. And a bit dorky. Speaking of which: ‘nerd’ and ‘dork’, when combined, could be ‘nerdork’. Or ‘dorkerd’. Or dorrerd’. Or, simply, ‘dord’. Clean, simple, elegant. And a word I will always be able to spell.

Oh, come on, now! "Adorkable" can be a word, but "dord" can't? That just unfair.

Oh, come on! “Adorkable” can be a word, but “dord” can’t? That just unfair.

Want to know more? Go here. And here. And check out some of the sources cited on Snopes.

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4 thoughts on ““Dord”: Ghost Word in Merriam-Webster

    • Esquivalience! Oh, that’s the word of the decade, for me. Come to think of it, isn’t this entire blog a long exercise in esquivalience?

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