Ghost words: When dictionaries make mistakes

Ghost words



When we say the word “the dictionary”, it has so much authority.
We think this is the absolute standard for what is and is not a word.
And if somebody says something dubious, you might say “That’s not in the dictionary.” Or you say “Go look it up in the dictionary” if you’re arguing about what something means.
And this is the closest thing we have to some kind of authority over what truly is and is not in the language.
But there are many limitations to that authority.
It can only refer to one specific subsection, one specific branch of the language, and the dictionary doesn’t necessarily include all the different varieties.
But even if we accept that the dictionary refers to the standard variety only, and that we can say “This is the official standard language”, dictionaries are compiled by very fallible people that occasionally make some very silly mistakes.
And these are sometimes called ghost words, because the dictionary shows them, and yet when you try to track them down, you find nothing but a ghost.
So here we have an old dictionary, and look at all these words written out here.
They just seem so authoritative.
Look, this is a list of all these words, in this case for heraldry.
These are all different kinds of symbols for heraldry.
And right near the beginning, we see this word here: abacot.
“An ancient cap of state of the English kings.” Well, some kind of ancient version of a crown.
It’s fun to imagine a royal cap.
But what is this thing?
And well, if you try to trace it down, you find that this word does not exist.
It has no etymology.
It cannot be traced to anything.
And yet, once it starts to appear in one dictionary, it then gets repeated in other dictionaries.
It gets used over and over again, and people start to think that maybe it’s actually a real word.
But in this case, it was entirely started as a misspelling.
The actual thing that it’s referring to is a bycocket, which is what we would call a Robin Hood hat.
This is the pointed kind of medieval hat.
And by a misspelling, and, you know, a kind of broken telephone effect of copying out these words, it somehow came to become abacot.
And, you know, you read the word abacot, it seems like it’s believable.
It looks like a word for some old hat.
It seems very plausible.
And yet, it is a ghost.
Now here’s one of the silliest examples, is the dord.
So in this dictionary, it was defined as “a noun meaning density” OK.
Dord is density.
Now as to why you’re saying dord instead of the word ‘density’ is not entirely clear.
But it was tracked down to an index card that was used in creating the dictionary, in which they said “D or d” means density.
As in capital D or small d.
D or d.
And some probably sleepy dictionary compilers, who had been seeing thousands of cards, in that moment merged those words together into dord.
And the word was born.
And for a few years, this existed in the dictionary.
So that’s a fun one.
This page has some examples.
You can see some of them, it just gets a silly little misunderstanding.
like here you have “some run kines through their hands”.
OK, well, actually they just meant to say “knives”.
But it was read as “kines”, and as soon as that is printed, now this made-up word, it’s almost like it gets written into stone as soon as it ends up in a dictionary.
Once, you know, its origin isn’t a mistake, but once it’s in the dictionary, it has this extra authority to it.
It seems like wow, this word is now real.
Another example is from a Walter Scott novel: “dost thou so soon morse thoughts of slaughter?” Uh, well, OK, so here’s this new word ‘morse’, and then they’re struggling to try to understand what this word means.
Actually just meant to say “nurse”.
So entirely born out of a mistake.
And you can see there’s some interesting examples from other languages as well.
So anytime a dictionary attempts to sort out the many varied and mysterious things going on in a language, there’s always room for a few mistakes.
And in this case, it can lead to the creation of some very unusual and sometimes silly ghost words.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *