Webster’s Dictionary Invented A New Word, By Accident

Webster’s Dictionary Invented A New Word, By Accident

Why we’re covering this:

  • It’s easy to forget that even respected references, like the dictionary, are subject to human error.
  • When you think about it, it’s pretty amazing that there aren’t more mistakes in dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other reference materials.
  • It sheds light on language development, and how some words get their meaning.

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Hold The Dord!

How did this infamous lexicographical error come to be? Well, producing a dictionary is hard. A lot of detailed information goes into each edition, and dictionary-makers are only human. According to Snopes, “dord was listed on page 771, between the entries for Dorcopsis (a type of small kangaroo) and doré (golden in color), as a noun meaning density in the fields of Physics and Chemistry.” You see, chemistry editor Austin M. Patterson submitted the entry “D or d” to be included as abbreviations for density in the dictionary’s second edition. Instead, “dord” (i.e. letters strung together with no etymology) sneakily found its way into the words pile.

Related: The First Universal Word Is… Huh?

When an editor finally noticed the non-word after five years, they wrote this note: “&! A ghost word!” Ghost words are what lexicographers call words that don’t exist, and we’ll assume that “&!” is how people politely curse in the 1930s. Here’s the real kicker—it wasn’t until 1947 that “dord” was officially removed from the dictionary. That means, “dord” continued to be printed for 13 years.

Related: These Foreign Words Would Be Handy To Have In English

Where Is The Love?

Merriam-Webster’s former editor Philip Gove explained the error to American Speech, stating that the proofreader must’ve been “not so alert and suspicious as usual” at the time “dord” ghosted its way into the book. Guess not, Gove. But, like us, Gove felt that lexicographers should welcome the mystery word with open arms: “It’s probably too bad,” he wrote, “for why shouldn’t ‘dord’ mean density?” Yeah, why should’t it?

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