Ghost Words

Sometimes new words are formed by misreadings, transcription errors, or typos. Find out which words that you use had such an inauspicious start.

Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #340

ghost wordsIn 1886, a lexicographer named Walter Skeat first used the phrase “ghost words” to describe words that he said had “no real existence.” Ghost words are words that weren’t real to begin with—they came about because of an error or misunderstanding—but they made it into the dictionary anyway.


For example, it appears that “gravy” only became a word because a 14th century translator misread a French cookbook. (1, 2) In Old French, the word was spelled with an “n”: “grane” (also sometimes spelled “graine” and related to “grain”), and it was related to the word “grain,” which meant “anything used in cooking”; but English cookbooks translated from French in the 14th century and later nearly always have a “v” or a “u” instead of the “n,” leading to the word “gravy” that sounds so right to us today. Researchers believe it was simply a scribal error. If the word had been transcribed properly, we’d be having “grany” on our mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving.


In the 15th century, a misprint gave us another ghost word: “syllabus.”  The Roman philosopher Cicero died in 43 BC, but his work has been read ever since. Two of his “Letters to Atticus” (one, two) have the word “sittybas” (possibly “sittubas”—sources disagree), which was a Greek word meaning “a label for a book or parchment” or “title-slip”; but one printing of this work mistakenly spelled the word as “syllabus.” (3, 4)

People apparently thought “syllabus” was Latin, and the spelling stuck so well that “syllabus” took on its new meaning in the mid-1600s and now even has a fake Latin plural: “syllabi” (although “syllabuses” is also listed as an option in all the dictionaries I checked.)


Here’s a more recent misunderstanding that gave us a new word. We got the word “tweed”—a type of wool—from a misunderstanding of the Scottish word “tweel,” which was how the Scots said “twill.” That mistake may have happened because there’s a Tweed river in Scotland, so when people heard or saw “tweel,” they thought of the Tweed River; but regardless of how it happened, “tweed” became an established word for the cloth in London in the mid-1800s. (3, 5, 6)


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