Ghost Words That Are Haunting The Dictionary

Boo! It's a ghost . . . word

Have you ever heard of the term ghost word? It doesn't have a direct connection to Halloween . . . although that's a good guess. No, a ghost word is a word that "has come into existence by error rather than by normal linguistic transmission, as through the mistaken reading of a manuscript, a scribal error, or a misprint." Walter William Skeat coined this term back in 1886.

Someone somewhere tossed out a word in error, but it didn't really look like a typo, and it rolled by many a copyeditor without anyone flagging it. Before you know it, the ghost word becomes a word! Maybe it doesn't get a lot of use, but it's still out there floating in the ether, waiting for its next opportunity to surface. Join us as we walk through these linguistic anomalies.


WATCH: This Is Why You Should Not Judge A Word By How It Sounds

Dord

Dord is a truly great ghost word if there ever was one. The original Webster's New International Dictionary listing was like this: D or d. This was an abbreviation for "density in physics or chemistry." Then, it seems that in 1931, a chemistry editor sent in a slip that read D or d, cont./density. The point was to add density to the list of words that the letter D can abbreviate.

And, it seems these slips used hyphens to separate letters. So, it read D-or-d. Whoever was inputting this entry viewed it as a word (dord) rather than seeing it as a choice, D or d. It made it into the dictionary in 1934 and the error was discovered five years later . . . yet it continues to appear.

Tweed

We all know what the word tweed means—"a coarse wool cloth in a variety of weaves and colors." My, that's a spiffy tweed jacket you're wearing today!

But, the word may have come from a misuse of the Scottish word tweel, which was how they pronounced the word twill ("a fabric constructed of twill weave"). Eventually, tweed and twill became synonymous as it gained the meaning we all know today.

Syllabus

This one goes way back—even farther back than the usual "back in the day."

It seems there was a Roman philosopher by the name of Cicero, who died in 43 BC. He wrote two "Letters to Atticus," and they contain the word sittybas (or maybe sittubas). There's some debate on that, it seems. This was a Greek word meaning a "label for a papyrus roll."

However, it's suspected that one printing of this work misspelled it as syllabus. The spelling stuck, and so it began to also mean "a label for a papyrus roll" as well. This morphed into its current meaning: ("an outline or other brief statement of the main points of a discourse, the subjects of a course of lectures, the contents of a curriculum, etc.") in the mid-1600s.

Cairbow

Cairbow slipped into an early 20th-century proof of the Oxford English Dictionary in an example sentence for the word glare: "It (the Cairbow) then suddenly squats upon its haunches, and slides along the glare-ice.” But, what is a Cairbow? Some rare creature that lives in the caves of the North Pole? Sounds fierce!

Nope, just a mistake—they meant to say caribou, as in "a really big deer."

Abacot

Somehow, someway, back in 1587, abacot made it into the second edition of Holinshed's Chronicles, a book on British history. MentalFloss adds that some 300 years later, the word was discovered by the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary as a typo of the word bycoket, which is "a cap or head-dress." That's a really big typo . . . .

"After all that time, the word came to mean a 'Cap of State,' made like a double crown, worn anciently by the Kings of England."

Momblishness

You might expect this one has to do with your mom. Did she do something silly, like send you a Halloween card for your birthday? Oh, that's just some momblishness.

Nope, nothing to do with dear old mom. The Oxford English Dictionary sites this as "explained as: muttering talk." It does sound like mumble, too. The OED puts it down to "scribal error" of "the plural of 'ne-moubliemie,' French for the forget-me-not flower."

Mountweazel

Sometimes, words aren't the only fictional things that show up in historical and educational works of information. In 1975, the New Columbia Encyclopedia included an entry on one Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, supposedly an American fountain designer who did a photo book about rural American mailboxes. The encyclopedia wrote that sadly, she died in an explosion while working on a piece for Combustibles magazine. (This should have been a tip-off to some.)

Miss Lillian was a totally fictional creation, yet she "is said to have appeared in other encyclopedias and biographical dictionaries" (You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf From Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia). This was proof that others "borrowed" from New Columbia. Ahem.

(And, we pay homage to this first plagiarism checker: mountweazel is defined in our dictionary, too!)

Kime

This word appeared (or mistakenly appeared, perhaps?) in the Edinburgh Review, in the context of a sentence referring to Hindus stabbing their hands with kimes. Hm, is that going to leave a mark?

While the natural assumption would be that a kime is some sinister torture device, it was just a typo for the word knives.

Morse

There is such a thing as morse code, of course. And, we define morse itself as "a clasp or brooch used to fasten a cape in the front." However, in this instance, morse was a misinterpretation of the common word nurse.

According to MentalFloss.com, Sir Walter Scott wrote this phrase in his 1821 book The Monastery, "'Dost thou so soon morse thoughts of slaughter?'" It was supposed to say nurse, as in "to nurture" or "to care for."

Phantomnation

Phantomnation appeared in the 1864 edition of Webster's. They called it a rare word meaning "'the appearance of a phantom, illusion," and attributed it to the poet Alexander Pope in his translation of The Odyssey, which contained the line “all the phantom nations of the dead."

A man named Richard Paul Jodrell made a habit of consolidating two-word phrases, and he did it to "phantom nation" for his 1820 title Philology of the English Language, which then caused it to appear in the dictionary in that form.

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