7 false words that ended up in the dictionary
Ghost words have nothing to do with apparitions from another world, but they are enough to frighten lexicographers.
Invented by the philologist Walter william skeat in 1886, ghost words were often the result of misreading and typographical errors. But not all misread and typed words are so scary. While some that meandered from their original forms have mostly retained their original meanings, the meanings of ghost words, and by extension the words themselves, have never existed except, as has says Skeat, “in the treacherous imaginations of ignorant or clumsy editors.”
Another type of false word is the Nihilartikel, which translates from Latin and German as “article of nothing”. Nihilartikels are deliberately bogus words included to ward off potential plagiarists. In other words, you know that the contents of your dictionary have been stolen if it includes a word that only exists in your dictionary. Here are seven false words that ended up in Webster’s, Oxford, etc.
Dord is perhaps the most famous of the ghost words. First appeared in the 1934 second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary, dord was meant to mean “density”.
The ghost phrase dragged on until 1939, when an editor finally noticed its lack of etymology. Frightened, he checked the files and found the original sheet: “D or d, cont / density”, which actually referred to abbreviations using the letter D. At the time, the words to be entered in the dictionary were entered with spaces between the letters, so that “d or d” could have been interpreted as “dor d”.
Although it proved its non-existence, it was not until 1947 that Webster’s pages were deadlocked.
Abacot debuted in the second edition of Chronicles of Holinshed, edited by Abraham Fleming and published in 1587. It then found its place in Spelman Glossary (1664), and all the major dictionaries since. Almost 300 years later, James Murray, the principal editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), discovered that the verbose wraith was in fact a printing error of coket, a cap or a headdress.
Until then abacot had taken on a life of its own, referring not to just any cap, but to a “state cap, made like a double crown, once worn by the kings of England.”
By the time walrus appeared in Sir Walter Scott’s 1821 novel, The monastery, it already had a few accepted nominal meanings: a fancy clasp for a cloak and another word for walrus. The verb walrus, however, was a mystery.
Scott’s use— “Are you so early walrus thoughts of massacre? some theories. The word was considered “excellent Lowland Scotch”, and perhaps meant “to prime”, as in the priming of a musket. Another guess was that it came from Latin bite, “to bite”, and therefore meant “to indulge in biting, stinging or gnawing thoughts of slaughter”.
In reality, walrus was just a misinterpretation of the much less exciting nurse meaning to feed or care for.
A ghostly word in more than one way, fantomnation was defined by Webster’s 1864 American Dictionary of the English Language like an “appearance of a ghost; illusion ”, and has been attributed to Alexander Pope’s translation of The odyssey:
“These solemn vows and these holy offerings paid
To all the ghosts of the dead.
The real word? The no less creepy ghost nation, a society of specters. We can blame the scholar Richard Paul Jodrell for this blunder, which, in his book The Philology of the English Language, omit hyphens in compound words.
As the OED says, momblishness is ‘explained as: talking while mumbling’. Not surprising with its similarity to the word mumble. While this linguistic bug was discovered as a “scribe’s error” of the plural of ne-moubliemia, French for the forget-me-not flower, we think it’s a ghost word that should be brought back from the dead.
The curious cairbow was mentioned in early 20th century evidence of OED in an example sentence of “dazzling”: “He [the Cairbow] then suddenly crouched down on his hips and glided along the dazzling ice.
Cairbow? No one had heard of such a thing. Was he some kind of polar creature with an affinity for ice? Did he have a big rainbow on his back?
Nope. Cairbow was just a bad reading of caribou.
The only forger by design, this spurious term meaning “willful avoidance of official responsibilities” materialized in the Second Edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD).
His fraud was revealed in the New Yorker. According to the magazine, an “independent investigator” who had heard rumors that there was a fictitious entry under the letter E in the NOAD did some research and guesswork and narrowed down the options. After the investigator sent a list of six possibilities to a group of nine experts, seven identified equivalence like the fake. A call to NOAD editor-in-chief Erin McKean confirmed this.
McKean said another editor, Christine Lindberg, coined the word, and added that “the inherent fallacy of equivalence is pretty obvious.” Not obvious enough to some: The charlatan ended up in Dictionary.com, which cited Webster’s New Millennium as its source.
Equivalence has now disappeared from the online reference as well as from NOAD, but as with all phantom words, its semantic spirit remains.
A version of this story was released in 2015; it has been updated for 2021.