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Dord is the word: a rogue entry to the dictionary

John Murray

Last week, we talked about new additions to Oxford Dictionaries Online and how and why they have been accepted. Is it ever possible, however, that words can enter the dictionary completely by mistake?

When the second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary was compiled in 1934, a peculiar word wormed its way into the book. The word was ‘dord’ and, according to the compilers, it was simply another word for ‘density’ in the fields of physics and chemistry.

In reality, however, physicists were never talking about dividing mass by volume to determine dord, and chemists where never talking to one another about osmium being the element with the highest dord, because ‘dord’ was not a word. It ended up in the dictionary by accident.

This seems very odd. Why would somebody even think that ‘dord’ could mean ‘density’? What could be so wrong with the word ‘density’ as to mean that an etymologically unconnected word like ‘dord’ would be required as a synonym of it?

The origin of ‘dord’ remained something of a mystery until 1954, when Merriam-Webster editor Philip Babcock Gove came clean about the reason for its unwelcome entry. He explained that a slip had been prepared to advise that an abbreviation for ‘density’ should be added to the 1934 edition in the form of ‘D or d’. Somewhere along the line, this was misinterpreted as the full word ‘dord’. Perhaps adding to the confusion was the fact that words were often presented to editors with a space between each letter in those days.

Dord, nevertheless, managed to cling on to its page 771 spot for five years despite having no right to be there, before an editor spotted that it had no etymology in 1939. Despite the mistake, it’s worth noting that ghost words like ‘dord’ are extremely rare in dictionaries, showing that lexicographers are usually far from dense.

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] sneak into dictionaries. We’ve written before about the rogue appearance of ‘dord’ in the 1934 Webster’s New International Dictionary. Falsely believed to be another […]

    Pingback by When words become weapons | Pressroom — March 6, 2015 @ 8:50 am

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