Episode 340: October 25, 2012
by Mignon Fogarty
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In 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)
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.]
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)
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)
- Burridge, K. Weeds in the Garden of Words. Cambridge University Press. 2005. http://j.mp/ShbOdz (accessed October 23, 2012).
- gravy. Oxford English Dictionary, Online Version. September 2012. http://oed.com/view/Entry/81077?redirectedFrom=gravy#eid (accessed October 23, 2012).
- Trask, R.L. (ed.) Dictionary of Historical and Comparative Linguistics. Edinburgh University Press. 2000. http://j.mp/XRHWpE (accessed October 23, 2012).
- syllabus. Oxford English Dictionary, Online Version. September 2012. http://oed.com/view/Entry/196148?redirectedFrom=syllabus#eid (accessed October 23, 2012).
- tweed. Oxford English Dictionary, Online Version. September 2012. http://oed.com/view/Entry/207966?redirectedFrom=tweed#eid (accessed October 23, 2012).
- tweed. Dictionary.com. Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian.http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/tweed (accessed: October 23, 2012).
- Brewster, E. “Ghost Word.” Merriam-Webster website. http://www.merriam-webster.com/video/0027-ghostword.htm?&t=1305303975 (accessed October 23, 2012).
- 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).
- Quinion, M. “Abacot.” World Wide Words. http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-aba1.htm (accessed October 23, 2012).
- Martin, G. “derring-do.” The Phrase Finder. http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/derring-do.html (accessed October 23, 2012).
- derring-do. Oxford English Dictionary, Online Version. September 2012. http://oed.com/view/Entry/50673?redirectedFrom=derring-do#eid(accessed October 23, 2012).
- 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).
- 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).