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The Mysterious "Dord"

The story of how a string of lexicographical errors brought about the birth of a new word.

DORD (supposedly meaning density) is a non-existent word entered into the second edition of Webster's New International Dictionary by mistake. The following is an excerpt from The Story of Webster's Third: Philip Gove's Controversial Dictionary and Its Critics (Herbert C. Morton, 1994):

dord
When the guidelines for etymology in Webster's Third were nearing completion, Gove took time out to add the story of dord to the lore of how things can go wrong in dictionary making. Dord was a word that had appeared spontaneously and had found a quiet niche in the English language two decades earlier. It was recorded in Webster's Second in 1934 on page 771, where it remained undetected for five years. It disappeared from the dictionary a year later without ever having entered common parlance. The facts, which had been established years earlier through a search of company files, were as follows, as abridged from Gove's explanation.

The lack of an etymology for dord, meaning "density," was noted by an editor on February 28, 1939, when he was perusing the dictionary. Startled by the omission, he went to the files to track down what had happened and what needed to be done. There, he found, first, a three-by-five white slip that had been sent to the company by a consultant in chemistry on July 31, 1931, bearing the notation "D or d, cont/ density." It was intended to be the basis for entering an additional abbreviation at the letter D in the next edition. The notation "cont," short for "continued," was to alert the typist to the fact that there would be several such entries for abbreviations at D. A change in the organization of the dictionary possibly added to the confusion that followed. For the 1934 edition, all abbreviations were to be assembled in a separate "Abbreviations" section at the back of the book; in the previous edition words and abbreviations appeared together in a single alphabetical listing (which is how they again appeared in the Third Edition.) But after the original slip was typed for editorial handling, it was misdirected. Eventually, it came to be treated with the words rather than with the abbreviations.

The editorial stylist who received the first typed version should have marked "or" to be set in italics to indicate that the letters were abbreviations (D or d). But instead, she drew a continuous wavy line underneath to signify that "D or d" should be set in boldface in the manner of an entry word, and a label was added, "Physics & Chem." Since entry words were to be typed with a space between letters, the editorial stylist may have inferred that the typist had intended to write d o r d; the mysterious "cont" was ignored. These errors should have been caught when the word was retyped on a different color slip for the printer, but they were not. The stylist who received this version crossed out the "cont" and added the part-of-speech label n for noun.

"As soon as someone else entered the pronunciation," Gove wrote, "dord was given the slap on the back that sent breath into its being. Whether the etymologist ever got a chance to stifle it, there is no evidence. It simply has no etymology. Thereafter, only a proofreader had final opportunity at the word, but as the proof passed under his scrutiny he was at the moment not so alert and suspicious as usual."

The last slip in the file – added in 1939 – was marked "plate change imperative/urgent." The entry was deleted, and the space was closed up by lengthening the entry that followed. In 1940 bound books began appearing without the ghost word but with a new abbreviation. In the list of meanings for the abbreviation "D or d" appeared the phrase "density, Physics." Probably too bad, Gove added, "for why shouldn't dord mean density?"

A footnote indicates the excerpt above was based on "The History of Dord," in American Speech, 29 (Philip Gove, 1954).

The fact that dord has become so famous is perhaps a tribute to lexicographers' exacting standards and the fastidious accuracy with which they compile dictionaries. Such errors are incredibly rare indeed in such a major dictionary, despite the huge potential for small oversights to creep in. What is somewhat worrying about this story, however, is that it appears that whoever inserted the pronunciation (and, for that matter, the "Physics & Chemistry" categorisation) appears to have done so with no research whatsoever. For how many other words were pronunciations simply made up or guessed?

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