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

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Other words that arose from errors:

abacot. A misprint of “bycoket,” a kind of cap or head-dress. It appeared in reference books for approximately 300 years before the error was discovered by James Murray, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. (9)

cherry. According to Merriam-Webster, "The Old North French word for 'cherry' is 'cherise'. English speakers heard the 'se' at the end of the word and assumed it was plural, 'cherries', and that the singular form of the word must then be 'cherry.'"

derring-do. Chaucer wrote “in durring don that longeth to a knight” meaning “in daring to do what is proper for a knight.” The phrase was misprinted in a later work by John Lydgate as “derrynge do,” and then taken by Edmund Spenser to mean “brave actions” or “manhood and chevalrie.” Sir Walter Scott used it in Ivanhoe in the manner of Spencer, using the spelling we use today, writing, “if there be two who can do a deed of such derring-do!” (10, 11, 12)

foupe. Multiple sources say that Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary had the word “foupe” when it should have been “soupe” (another word for “swoop”) because the archaic long “s” so closely resembled the letter “f.”

Imogene. The name of the character in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline is hypothesized to be a misspelling of the name Innogen.

Sane (Middle English). In Middle English, “sane” was a verb that meant “to cure” or “to heal.” A work titled Middle English Word Studies: A Word and Author Index lists a 1986 paper by Lister Matheson, and summarizes it as hypothesizing that “sane” was a misreading of the verb “save” (also spelled “saue”) that came from the Latin “sanare,” which meant “to cure” or “to heal.” (13)

  1. Burridge, K. Weeds in the Garden of Words. Cambridge University Press. 2005. http://j.mp/ShbOdz (accessed October 23, 2012).
  2. gravy. Oxford English Dictionary, Online Version. September 2012. http://oed.com/view/Entry/81077?redirectedFrom=gravy#eid (accessed October 23, 2012).
  3. Trask, R.L. (ed.) Dictionary of Historical and Comparative Linguistics. Edinburgh University Press. 2000. http://j.mp/XRHWpE (accessed October 23, 2012).
  4. syllabus. Oxford English Dictionary, Online Version. September 2012. http://oed.com/view/Entry/196148?redirectedFrom=syllabus#eid (accessed October 23, 2012).
  5. tweed. Oxford English Dictionary, Online Version. September 2012. http://oed.com/view/Entry/207966?redirectedFrom=tweed#eid (accessed October 23, 2012).
  6. tweed. Dictionary.com. Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian.http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/tweed (accessed: October 23, 2012).
  7. Brewster, E. “Ghost Word.” Merriam-Webster website. http://www.merriam-webster.com/video/0027-ghostword.htm?&t=1305303975 (accessed October 23, 2012).
  8. Alford, H. “Not a Word.” New Yorker. August 29, 2005. http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/08/29/050829ta_talk_alford (accessed October 23, 2012).
  9. Quinion, M. “Abacot.” World Wide Words. http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-aba1.htm (accessed October 23, 2012).
  10. Martin, G. “derring-do.” The Phrase Finder. http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/derring-do.html (accessed October 23, 2012).
  11. derring-do. Oxford English Dictionary, Online Version. September 2012. http://oed.com/view/Entry/50673?redirectedFrom=derring-do#eid(accessed October 23, 2012).
  12. Bloomfield, L. Language. Motilal Banarsidass: India. 2005. http://books.google.com/books?id=Gfrd-On5iFwC&q=derring-do#v=snippet&q=derring-do&f=false(accessed October 23, 2012).
  13. Sylvester, L. and Roberts, J. Middle English Word Studies: A Word and Author Index. D. S. Brewer: Cambridge. 2000. http://j.mp/Ty8m16 (accessed October 23, 2012).


Ghost image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Best friend cardi  image, AnaKika at Flickr. CC BY 2.0.




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