If you were to get ahold of the second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary—specifically, a copy printed between 1934 and 1947—and turn to the “D” section, you’d quickly notice something curious: A definition for the word “dord.” According to this particular dictionary, “dord” is a term used in physics and chemistry—a noun meaning “density.”
There’s just one problem: “Dord” isn’t a real word. And what’s more, it never has been.
So how on earth did it end up in the dictionary—in one of Merriam-Webster’s dictionaries, no less? And, more importantly, how did it stay there for so long before anyone noticed or fixed the problem?
“Dord” is what’s called a “ghost word”—a “word form never in established usage,” according to Merriam-Webster (Yes, the same folks responsible for “dord” in the first place.). Dictionary.com further elaborates, defining the term as “a word that has come into existence by error rather than by normal linguistic transmission, as through the mistaken reading of a manuscript, a scribal error, or a misprint.” The phrase “ghost word” was first used in this way in 1886 when it appeared in philologist Walter William Skeat’s annual presidential address of the London Philological Society.
“Dord” is not, of course, the only ghost word ever to have existed; it’s not even the first ghost word to have been identified. But it is one of the most hilarious ghost words out there due to the improbable sequence of events that led to its inclusion in one of the most authoritative dictionaries of American English around.
Here’s how the whole thing went down.
A Brief History of Webster’s Dictionaries
The original namesake of what’s now Merriam-Webster was Noah Webster, the lexicographer responsible for popularizing many of the conventions of American English that are now considered standard—or, to put it another way, he’s the guy that de-Britishized the English language for American usage. (Think “center” vs. “centre,” “plow” vs. “plough,” etc.) Webster’s first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, was published in 1806. His American Dictionary of the English Language followed in 1828, with a second edition emerging in 1841.
Following Webster’s death in 1843, George and Charles Merriam bought the rights to Webster’s name and copyright; then, after publishing a number of other dictionaries using his name between 1843 and 1890, the G. & C. Merriam Company expanded Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language into Webster’s International Dictionary. Two editions of the International Dictionary were published before a complete revision was undertaken, which appeared in 1909 under the name Webster’s New International Dictionary.
It’s this second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary that concerns us right now—the one at the center of the “dord” mystery.
Edited by William Allan Neilson and Thomas A. Knott, the second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary was published in 1934. But Neilson and Knott didn’t work on the dictionary alone; in fact, 207 special editors were also brought aboard to handle the “scientific, scholarly, technical, and other special subjects”— totaling about 600 in all—represented in the volume.
These special editors included Austin McDowell Patterson. Then Antioch College’s vice-president and a professor of chemistry as well as the chairman of the chemistry department, Patterson was more than qualified for his assigned role as the dictionary’s chemistry editor. His job—and the job of every editor working on this dictionary—involved typing up 3×5 slips of paper for each piece of information intended for entry in the finished reference book. One day, he typed up a slip with the following information on it: “D or d, cont. Physics & Chem. density.”
Or, as it was actually arranged on the slip itself, according to a reproduction of the original note published at Merriam-Webster’s blog:
“D or d, cont.
Physics & Chem.
This particular slip was one of many that identified words that the letter “D,” either capitalized or lowercase, could be used to abbreviate—hence the “cont.” following the “D or d” (That is to say, the slip was a continuation of an ongoing series.) But what actually happened with it is one for the books: After Patterson submitted it, it was interpreted as an entry for a headword—“headwords” being the words that begin each separate entry in reference books such as dictionaries or encyclopedias. And thus, “dord” ended up as an entry in the second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary, neatly sandwiched between “Dorcopsis” (defined as “a genus of small kangaroos of Papua”) and “doré” (meaning “golden in color”).
Its full entry read as follows:
“dord (dôrd), n. Physics & Chem. Density.”
It was left lowercase, as it was determined not to be a proper noun. And there it stayed for a full five years before anyone realized that something was wrong.
Exorcising the Ghost
Dictionary editors are nothing if not thorough, especially when they’re fact-checking work originally done by others. In 1939, one such editor noticed the lack of etymology or usage examples in “dord’s” entry—and, sensing that something was off, looked into the matter further.
When this editor realized that “dord” was not actually a word and that its inclusion had been due to a misreading of the original “D or d” slip, they filed a new slip marked “IMPERATIVE! URGENT!” This slip identified “dord” as “a ghost word!” (complete with exclamation point) and clarified what had gone wrong: “Patterson’s MS (attached), read D# or d#, density, meaning that capital D or lower-case d was an abbreviation for ‘density.’ Patterson’s slip should have gone to abbreviations.”
But even then, it took another seven to eight years—and another slip from yet another editor—before the change was made in the dictionary itself. This newest slip, dated 1947, was once again headed with “dord” and addressed to a “Mr. O.”: “Although a plate change was ordered in 1940 (deletion of this entry) it still appears in books that we have,” read the slip. “Please give this entry special attention for plate change.”
After that message, “dord” was finally removed from Webster’s New International Dictionary. It remained absent when Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1961, and has not been included in any of Merriam-Webster’s dictionaries since.
How Did It Happen?
The big question, of course, is how on earth an error like that happened at all.
The misinterpretation of Patterson’s “D or d” slip is actually somewhat understandable. As Merriam-Webster’s own blog explains, the standard procedure for all slips written for what would eventually become entries in the second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary was to put a space between each letter of the term in question. Why? Well, for pretty much the same reason all your teachers required you to double-space your papers before you handed them in: So that there would be space to mark the entry up. In the case of terms slated for the dictionary, the space was used for marks that indicate stress and syllable breaks.
So, we can reasonably assume that, after Patterson submitted his “D or d” slip for “density,” the person who handled it from there read the letter sequence not as “D or d,” but as “D o r d”—that is, they interpreted it as a word meant for entry, likely due to the letter spacing conventions typically utilized on the slips to indicate headwords. Accordingly, they wrote a wavy line beneath the sequence of letters to show that they should be considered a unit and set in boldface—that is, it was misidentified as a headword. (Per Merriam-Webster’s blog, the appropriate markings would actually involve putting a wavy line beneath each D and a straight line beneath the “or,” meaning that the Ds should be set in boldface and the “or” in italics.)
What’s less clear is how the non-word managed to get past everyone who looked at the manuscript before its publication, including the etymologist and the proofreader. In the end, we can just assume it was a simple case of human error. After all, worse mistakes have made it past the drawing board elsewhere. This one, at least, was mostly harmless.
So, the next time a vocabulary stickler berates you for uttering a word that doesn’t technically exist, remind them about “dord.” Just because it isn’t a “real” word doesn’t mean it can’t ever make its way into the dictionary anyway!