7 Fake Words That Ended Up in the Dictionary

iStock.com/peshkov
iStock.com/peshkov

Ghost words have nothing to do with otherworldly apparitions, but they’re enough to scare the headwords off lexicographers.

Coined by philologist Walter William Skeat in 1886, ghost words are often the result of misreadings and typographical errors. But not all misread and mistyped words are so spooky. While some that have meandered from their original forms have mostly retained their original meanings, the meaning of ghost words, and by extension the words themselves, never existed, except, as Skeat said, "in the perfervid imagination of ignorant or blundering editors."

Another kind of fake word is the Nihilartikel, which translates from Latin and German as “nothing article.” Nihilartikels are deliberately phony words included to ward off would-be plagiarists. In other words, you know your dictionary content has been stolen if it includes a word that exists only in your dictionary. Here are seven fake words that ended up in Webster’s, Oxford, and the like.

1. DORD

Dord is perhaps the most famous of the ghost words. First appearing in the 1934 second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary, dord was said to mean “density.”

The phantom phrase hung out until 1939, when an editor finally noticed its lack of etymology. Spooked, he checked the files and found the original slip: "D or d, cont/ density,” which was actually referring to abbreviations using the letter D. At the time, words to be entered in the dictionary were typed with spaces between letters so “d or d” might have been interpreted as “d o r d.”

Despite having proved its non-existence, it would take until 1947 before Webster’s pages were dord-free.

2. ABACOT

Abacot made its debut in the second edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles, edited by Abraham Fleming and published in 1587. It then found its way into Spelman’s Glossarium (1664), and every major dictionary since. Almost 300 years later, James Murray, the primary editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), discovered that the wordy wraith was actually a misprint of bycoket, a cap or head-dress.

By then, abacot had taken on a life of its own, referring to not just any cap but a “Cap of State, made like a double crown, worn anciently by the Kings of England.”

3. MORSE

By the time morse appeared in Sir Walter Scott’s 1821 novel, The Monastery, it already had a couple of accepted noun meanings: a fancy clasp for a cape and another word for walrus. The verb morse, however, was a mystery.

Scott’s use—“Dost thou so soon morse thoughts of slaughter?”—elicited a few theories. The word was thought to be “excellent Lowland Scotch,” and perhaps meant “to prime,” as in the priming of a musket. Another guess was that it came from the Latin mordere, “to bite,” and thus meant “to indulge in biting, stinging, or gnawing thoughts of slaughter.”

In actuality, morse was merely a misinterpretation of the far less exciting nurse meaning to nurture or care for.

4. PHANTOMNATION

A ghostly word in more than one way, phantomnation was defined by Webster’s 1864 American Dictionary of the English Language as an “appearance as of a phantom; illusion,” and was attributed to Alexander Pope’s translation of The Odyssey:

These solemn vows and holy offerings paid
To all the phantomnations of the dead.

The real word? The no less creepy phantom-nation, a society of specters. We can blame scholar Richard Paul Jodrell for this gaffe, who, in his book The Philology of the English Language, left out hyphens in compound words.

5. MOMBLISHNESS

As the OED puts it, momblishness is “explained as: muttering talk.” Not surprising with its similarity to the word mumble. While this linguistic bogey was discovered to be a “scribal error” of the plural of ne-moubliemie, French for the forget-me-not flower, we think this is one ghost word that should be brought back from the dead.

6. CAIRBOW

The curious cairbow was mentioned in an early 20th century proof of the OED in an example sentence of "glare": “It [the Cairbow] then suddenly squats upon its haunches, and slides along the glare-ice.”

Cairbow? No one had heard of such thing. Was it some kind of polar creature with an affinity for ice? Did it have a big rainbow on its back?

Nope. Cairbow was merely a misreading of caribou.

7. ESQUIVALIENCE

The one faker by design, this spurious term, meaning “the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities,” materialized in the second edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD).

Its fraudulence was revealed in the New Yorker. According to the magazine, an “independent investigator” who had heard rumors that there was a fictitious entry under the letter E in the NOAD did some research and guesswork and narrowed down the options. After the investigator sent a list of six possibilities to a group of nine experts, seven identified esquivalience as the fake. A call to NOAD'S then-editor-in-chief, Erin McKean, confirmed it.

McKean said that another editor, Christine Lindberg, had invented the word, and added that esquivalience's "inherent fakeitude is fairly obvious.” Not obvious enough for some: The charlatan ended up in Dictionary.com, which cited Webster's New Millennium as its source.

Esquivalience is gone now from the online reference as well as the NOAD, but as with all ghost words, its semantic spirit still remains.

This story originally ran in 2015.

Dad Joke, Tallboy, and 531 More Words Are Now in Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary

vasina/iStock via Getty Images
vasina/iStock via Getty Images

Earlier this week, Merriam-Webster announced that it had updated its online dictionary to recognize they as a singular nonbinary pronoun. While that may have been the most buzzworthy term on the list, it wasn’t the only one—Merriam-Webster also added 532 other words and definitions from the worlds of sports, business, psychology, pop culture, and more.

Certified pun masters, lovers of all things corny, and actual dads can rejoice: Dad joke is among the hundreds of new terms. Though it might seem like people have been tossing the term around for some years now, there was more to the addition process than just proving that dad joke is common. Merriam-Webster editor Peter Sokolowski explained to The Mercury News that editors sift through print and online publications to find evidence of a term’s widespread popularity and staying power. Once the editors could confirm that dad joke was all over the place and wasn’t just being used to describe “a joke told by a dad,” it was time to give it a formal definition: “a wholesome joke of the type said to be told by fathers with a punchline that is often an obvious or predictable pun or play on words and usually judged to be endearingly corny or unfunny.”

Also added were free solo, describing a rock climb undertaken without any rope or safety equipment, stinger—those short movie scenes during or after the credits—and coulrophobia, an “abnormal fear of clowns,” though anybody who’s ever seen a clown might argue that clown fear is completely normal.

Sokolowski’s favorite new word is non-rhotic, which describes the Bostonian habit of not pronouncing the letter r unless it’s followed by a vowel. “It expresses how the dictionary works,” he told The Mercury News. “The term has been around for 50 years but it’s been mostly used by scholars and linguists. But because of social media, the curtain is being pulled back and it’s being used more by the general public. As a language guy, I think that’s just fantastic!”

Merriam-Webster has also added a number of new abbreviations and “senses,” or definitions, to existing dictionary entries. Likely brought about by their ubiquitous presence among Instagram hashtags, inspo and vacay are now officially acceptable abbreviations for inspiration and vacation, respectively. And financiers will be happy to hear that haircut now has a new sense meaning “a reduction in the value of an asset” (even though a good haircut can really make you feel like a million bucks). Tallboy or tall boy has also now been accepted to mean “a tall cylindrical can for beverages (such as beer) usually measuring 16 fluid ounces.”

Industry jargon, social media, and pop culture are all common sources of lexical innovation, and authors have contributed quite a few new terms over the years, too. Try your hand at matching words to their authors-slash-inventors in this quiz.

[h/t The Mercury News]

13 Fascinating Word Origin Stories (That Are Completely Untrue)

karandaev/iStock via Getty Images
karandaev/iStock via Getty Images

Sometimes when the true origin of a word isn’t known (and sometimes even when it is), entirely fictitious theories and tall tales emerge to try to fill in the gap. These so-called folk etymologies often provide neater, cleverer, and wittier explanations than any genuine etymology ever could, all of which fuels their popularity and makes them all the more likely to be passed around—but sadly, there’s just no escaping the fact that they’re not true. Thirteen of these etymological tall-tales, taken from word origins guide Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons, are explained and debunked here.

1. Bug

According to the story, back in the days when computers were vast room-filling machines containing hundreds of moving parts, one of the earliest recorded malfunctions was caused by an insect making its home on one of the delicate mechanisms inside—and hence, all computer malfunctions since have been known as bugs.

This well-known tale apparently has its roots in an incident recorded in London’s Pall Mall Gazette in 1889, which described how Thomas Edison spent two consecutive nights trying to identify "a bug in his phonograph"—"an expression," the article explained, "for solving a difficulty, and implying that some imaginary insect has secreted itself inside and is causing all the trouble." All in all, it appears the original computer bug was sadly a metaphorical one.

2. Cabal

A cabal is a group or sect of like-minded people, often with the implication that those involved are conspiring or working together for some clandestine purpose. In 17th century England, the Cabal Ministry was precisely that: An exclusive group of the five closest and most important members of King Charles II’s Parliament, who, in 1670, signed a treaty allying England and France in a potential war against the Netherlands. The five signatories were Sir Thomas Clifford, Lord Arlington, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Ashley, and Lord Lauderdale, and it’s the first letters of their five names and titles that formed the cabal itself.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. Cabal is actually a derivative of caballa, the Latin spelling of kabbalah (a tradition of Jewish mysticism), and the fact that these five signatories’ names could be manipulated to spell out the word cabal is a complete coincidence.

3. Golf

Golf doesn’t stand for "gentlemen only ladies forbidden," nor for "gentlemen only, ladies fly-away-home," and nor, for that matter, for any other means of telling someone to go away that begins with the letter F. Instead, it’s thought to be a derivative of an old Scots word for a cudgel or a blow to the head, gouf, which in turn is probably derived from Dutch. The earliest known reference to golf in English? An Act of the Scottish Parliament, passed on March 6, 1457, that demanded that "football and golf should be utterly condemned and stopped," because they interfered with the military’s archery practice.

4. Kangaroo

A popular story claims that when the English explorer Captain Cook first arrived in Australia in the late 18th century, he spotted a peculiar-looking animal bounding about in the distance and asked a native Aborigine what it was called. The Aborigine, having no idea what Cook had just said, replied, "I don’t understand"—which, in his native language, apparently sounded something like kangaroo. Cook then returned to his ship and wrote in his journal on 4 August 1770 that, "the animals which I have before mentioned [are] called by the Natives kangooroo." The fact that Cook’s journals give us the earliest written reference to the word kangaroo is true, but sadly the story of the oblivious Aborigine is not.

5. Marmalade

When Mary I of Scotland fell ill while on a trip to France in the mid-1500s, she was served a sweet jelly-like concoction made from stewed fruit. At the same time, she overheard the French maids and nurses who were caring for her muttering that "Madame est malade" ("ma’am is unwell"), and in her confusion she muddled the two things up—and marmalade as we know it today gained its name. As neat a story as this is, it’s unsurprisingly completely untrue—not least because the earliest reference to marmalade in English dates from 60 years before Mary was even born.

6. Nasty

Thomas Nast was a 19th century artist and caricaturist probably best known today for creating the Republican Party’s elephant logo. In the mid-1800s, however, Nast was America’s foremost satirical cartoonist, known across the country for his cutting and derisive caricatures of political figures. Anything described as nasty was ultimately said to be as scathing or as cruel as his drawings. Nast eventually became known as the "Father of the American Cartoon," but he certainly wasn’t the father of the word nasty—although its true origins are unknown, its earliest record dates from as far back as the 14th century.

7. Posh

In the early 1900s, the wealthiest passengers on cruise ships and liners could afford to pay for a port-side cabin on the outward journey and a starboard cabin on the homeward journey, thereby ensuring that they either had the best uninterrupted views of the passing coastlines, or else had a cabin that avoided the most intense heat of the sun. These "port out starboard home" passengers are often claimed to have been the first posh people—but a far more likely explanation is that posh was originally simply a slang name for cash.

8. Pumpernickel

The bogus story behind pumpernickel is that it comes from the French phrase pain pour Nicol, a quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte that essentially means "bread only good enough for horses." In fact, the true origin of pumpernickel is even more peculiar: pumper is the German equivalent of "fart" and nickel is an old nickname for a devil or imp, literally making pumpernickel something along the lines of "fart-goblin." Why? Well, no one is really sure—but one theory states that the bread might have originally been, shall we say, hard to digest.

9. Sh*t

Back when horse manure (and everything else, for that matter) used to be transported by ship, the methane gas it gives off tended to collect in the lowest parts of the vessel—until a passing crewman carrying a lantern had the misfortune to walk by and blow the ship to pieces. Did this ever happen? Who knows. But one thing we do know is that sh*t is certainly not an acronym of "ship high in transit," a motto often mistakenly said to have been printed on crates of manure to ensure that they were stored high and dry while being moved from port to port. In fact, sh*t—like most of our best cursewords—is an ancient Anglo-Saxon word dating from at least 1000 years ago.

10. Sincere

Sincere is derived from the Latin sincerus, meaning "pure" or "genuine." Despite this relatively straightforward history, however, a myth has since emerged that claims sincere is actually a derivative of the Latin sine cera, meaning "without wax," and supposed to refer to cracks or chips in sculptures being filled in with wax; to Ancient Greeks giving statues made of wax rather than stone to their enemies; or to documents or wine bottles without wax seals being potentially tampered or tainted. None of these stories, of course, is true.

11. Sirloin

Sirloin steak takes its name from sur, the French word for "above" (as in surname), and so literally refers to the fact that it is the cut of meat found "above the loin" of a cow. When sur– began to be spelled sir– in English in the early 1600s, however, a popular etymology emerged claiming that this cut of meat was so delicious that it had been knighted by King Charles II.

12. Snob

Different theories claim that on lists of ferry passengers, lists of university students, and even on lists of guests at royal weddings, the word snob would once have been written beside the names of all those individuals who had been born sine nobilitate, or "without nobility." The Oxford English Dictionary rightly calls this theory "ingenious but highly unlikely," and instead suggests that snob was probably originally a slang nickname for a shoemaker’s apprentice, then a general word for someone of poor background, and finally a nickname for a pretentious or snobbish social climber.

13. Sword

In the New Testament, "the word of God" is described as "sharper than any two-edged sword" (Hebrews 4:12). This quote is apparently the origin of a popular misconception that sword is derived from a corruption of "God’s word." Admittedly, this kind of formation is not without precedent (the old exclamations gadzooks! and zounds! are corruptions of "God’s hooks" and "God’s wounds," respectively) but sword is actually a straightforward Anglo-Saxon word, sweord, which is probably ultimately derived from an even earlier Germanic word meaning "cut" or "pierce."

This list first ran in 2014 and was republished in 2019.

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