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


Here’s an even more recent ghost word you may not have heard of, but that has an origin I find especially interesting: “dord.” The story goes that the original dictionary entry was “D or d” (capital “d” or lowercase “d”)—as an abbreviation for “density in physics or chemistry”—but someone who worked on the entry misread it as a word spelled d-o-r-d instead of “D or d,” and thus, the word “dord” was born in the 1934 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary.

I imagined a bleary-eyed, incompetent, lower-level employee looking at it and thinking “‘Dord.’ Sounds like a word to me!” but actually, when people working on entries typed out the spelling of a word, it was standard to leave a space between each letter, so it wasn’t so far fetched to think that whoever typed “D or d” had meant “D o r d” and simply forgot to put a space between the “o” and the “r.” (7)

“Dord” isn’t in dictionaries anymore though. A Merriam-Webster editor discovered the mistake and the entry was corrected 13 years later, in 1947. (See the actual handwritten entry in this Merriam-Webster video.)


Finally, I’ll end with a story of an intentional ghost word—one that was invented by an editor at the New Oxford American Dictionary and included in the 2001 edition to help the company track copyright violators who were lifting entries from the dictionary. If the made-up word Oxford had created appeared in another dictionary, it would be clear that it had been copied from them.

The word was “esquivalience,” which they defined as “the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities.” They even gave it a made-up etymology, saying it arose in the late 19th century, perhaps from the French word “esquiver” meaning “dodge” or “slink away.”

In a New Yorker article by Henry Alford, who discovered the ruse, Oxford editor Erin McKean is quoted as saying, “The editors figured, We’re all working really hard, so let’s put in a word that means ‘working really hard.’ Nothing materialized, so they thought, let’s do the opposite.” (8)

[Added 10/26/2012: Some people don't believe that words created on purpose are true ghost words. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary definition for "ghost word" would include such words, but the Dictionary.com entry would not. Alford, inspired by Lillian Virginia Mountweazel who was fabricated for inclusion in the 1975 New Columbia Encyclopedia, made up the term "Mountweazel" to categorize "esquivalience."]

[Added 10/27/2012: Thanks to John Racine who made me aware of the word ""Nihilartikel," which likely predates "Mountweazel," and to Ben Zimmer who pointed me to this article about both words.]


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