Culture Re-View: The discovery of the mystery word "Dord"

The word "Dord" above a dictionary
The word "Dord" above a dictionary Copyright Canva
By Jonny Walfisz
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On this day in 1939, dictionary editors discovered a word they couldn't explain: "Dord".

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28 February 1939: Discovery of the mystery word “dord”

In 1934, the second edition of the Webster’s International Dictionary was published. It was a success for the G&C Merriam Company (now Merriam-Webster company), but little did they know at the time there was a mystery word included.

It took until this day in 1939 for an editor at the company to notice the word “Dord” on page 771. Defined as an “Abbreviation for density” in physics and chemistry, the word puzzled the editor for one simple reason: it wasn’t a real word.

Despite its appearance in a reliable reference book, no one at the company could find any situation where “dord” appeared as a real word with the dictionary's given definition. “Dord” didn’t exist.

An investigation was launched to find out the origins of this peculiar word. Had someone snuck in an erroneous word for a joke? Was it actually a real word and they just needed to find an example?

As the Merriam-Webster website notes: “The fact is that all the words in Merriam-Webster's dictionaries are established members of the language, backed by substantial evidence of those words in published, edited text.”

“But, um, there was for a time a word in one of our dictionaries that violated this principle. Just one,” they add.

Not only was there an erroneous word in the 1934 edition of the dictionary, but G&C Merriam Company would continue to print that error in their dictionaries until 1947 when it was finally removed.

Eventually, the mystery was solved. It turned out that chemistry editor Austin Patterson had sent in a slip to add an entry when making the 1934 edition. On the slip, Patterson intended to point out that the letter “D” or “d” could sometimes be used as an abbreviation for “density”.

The big mistake came though because Patterson’s typing was misunderstood. Instead of reading “D” or “d”, whoever received the note thought he’d written “Dord”.

Because “dord” spent so long in the dictionary, it has become a hit story among lexicographers. The term for an incorrect word published by a reference book is a “ghost word” and sometimes they can become popular words in their own right. “Dord” is the only ghost word in Merriem-Webster’s history.

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