by Murray Pearce
Word Ways, 1986


Lexicographers are human, and as a result their dictionaries contain errors, not many to be sure, but lengthy lists of errors in Webster's New International Dictionary, Second and Third Editions (Web 2 and Web 3) have been presented in past issues of Word Ways. These errors consist for the most part of misspellings, words out of alphabetical order and missing cross-references or variants mentioned in definitions. Even the fact that a word is missing (WOULDN'T in early printings of Web 3) has been cited as an error. A rarer type of error is the inclusion in a dictionary of a non-word or "ghost word," a term coined by etymologist Walter Skeat in 1886. On occasion such inclusion is not an error but a hoax, admitted or not, on the part of the compiler. The most famous of such words is ZZXJOANW, the last word in the Dictionary of Terms section of the Music Lovers' Encyclopedia compiled by Rupert Hughes in 1903 and revised and newly edited by Deems Taylor and Russell Kerr in 1939. Purporting to be a Maori word defined variously as "drum," "fife," and "conclusion," the legitimacy of the word was thoroughly demolished by Philip Cohen in "What's the Good Word?" in the November 1976 Word Ways.

As an example of an admitted ghost word, look up KELEMENOPY in A Browser's Dictionary by John Ciardi. Ciardi defines this word as "the one essential trope neglected by classical rhetoricians: a sequential straight line through the middle of everything, leading nowhere. 'Teddy Kennedy's career has been the classical kelemenopy of the American twentieth century.'" Ciardi points out that the word is "based on k-l-m-n-o-p, the central sequence of the alphabet, having ten letters before and ten after it. Hence, a strictly sequential irrelevance. 'Kelemenopy' is from my own psychic warp, to see if anyone would notice, and because I have always dreamed of fathering a word."

Both ZZXJOANW and KELEMENOPY, if they existed, would be highly prized by logologists, the one ecause it is the last word in any dictionary, the other because it contains six consecutive letters of the alphabet in proper order (real words, such as KILMARNOCK or LIMNOPHILE, have at most five).

The Oxford English Dictionary provides a list of Spurious Words, most of which owe their existence to misreadings or mistranslations on the part of early lexicographers. These errors were unquestionably copied by many of the later well-known dictionary makers. In his Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities, William Walsh describes the process for one of the words in the Oxford list:

ABACOT, a spurious word which by a remarkable series of blunders has gained a foothold in the dictionaries. It is usually defined as "a cap of state, wrought up into the shape of two crowns, worn formerly by English kings." Neither word nor thing has any real existence. In Hall's Chronicles the word "bicocket" (Old French bicoquet, a sort of peaked cap or head-dress) happened to be misprinted "abococket." Other writers copied the error. Then Holinshed improved the new word to "abococke," and Abraham Fleming to "abacot," and so it spun merrily along, a sort of rolling stone of philology, shaping itself by continual attrition into something as different in sense as in sound from its first original, until Spelman landed the prize in his Glossarium, giving it the definition quoted above. So through Bailey, Ash and Todd it has been handed down to our time, a standing exemplar of the solidarity of dictionaries, and of the ponderous indolence with which philologers repeat without examining the errors of their predecessors.

Since Walsh's book was published in 1904 his "our time" is over 80 years ago. Web 1, published in 1909, shows ABACOT as a misspelling of BYCOCKET, but by the time of Web 2 in 1934 the ghost word had disappeared from the dictionary.

My favorite ghost word is DORD. This "word" is in Web 2 defined as "density," and its existence is explained by Robert Hendrickson in The Literary Life and Other Curiosities. DORD began life as an error made when transcribing a card that read "D or d" (meaning a capital D or small d) for "density." Merriam-Webster caught the error after Web 2 was published, and DORD does not appear in Web 3 as a main entry. Showing a surprising willingness to refer to their own errors, Merriam-Webster cites the ghost word DORD (along with PHANTOMNATION) in their Web 3 definition of the term "ghost word." Since neither word appears as an entry in Web 3 (and neither should, of course) the two citations are not very illuminating.

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