Word Bites — Dord?

In 1934, a curious word entry appeared in the D-section of the second edition of the New International Dictionary, published by G. and C. Merriam Company, what is now part of Merriam-Webster. The word was defined as a synonym for density, used in the contexts of physics and chemistry. However, this word was completely removed from 1947, vanishing from future dictionary editions forever. This word, is dord.

The curious thing about dord was, there was no true etymology for this word. This detail caught the attention of an editor in 1939, who then called for the excision of the word in future prints, while Doré furnace was added in its place, closing the gap dord left behind. The new bound books without dord started to appear in 1940, while the erroneous books started to be phased out. So, how was dord “created”?

It turns out, that in 1931, the dictionary’s chemistry editor sent in a slip with the message:

D or d, cont./density

The original intention, was to append density as a word to be added to the list that D, or d, could abbreviate. However, the most widely known mistake was, these letters appeared to run together as a single word, giving the impression that the word dord meant density. What was amazing, though, was the lack of questioning or investigation by the proofreading team, allowing dord to slip by unnoticed into the dictionary, with its own pronunciation guide, and part of speech (noun).

Words like dord are often known as a “ghost word” resulting from a dictionary error. These ghost words are usually words published into dictionaries with barely any use in practice, and with no previously known meaning prior to the addition. Dord was not the first, nor the only ghost word added, and ghost words are seen in other languages as well. Errors like this can take place over a long time as well, resulting in a linguistic form of broken telephone. For example, Dmitri Borgmann explained, in his book Beyond Language: Adventures in Word and Thought, that the word feamyng, a word purported to mean a group of ferrets, was a result of centuries of errors from typography and misread handwriting that has entered some dictionaries. Will ghost words like dord and feamyng continue to enter the digital sphere? As languages evolve, how words are written and interpreted could very well enter dictionaries as novel expressions or meanings, but if these become ghost words would depend on how the editors of various dictionaries treat these errors.

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