Thursday, February 28, 2013

Thursday in History: The Discovery of Dord

The dictionary is not the first place I’d go to find typos, but on February 28, 1939, an editor with Merriam-Webster discovered one in the second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary.
There was no internet in the early 1930s. The Physics and Chemistry editor wasn’t able to email a note to his supervisor, because in 1931, they had typewriters instead. Each note would get typed out on a slip of paper and put into its appropriate pile. Somehow, a note about an abbreviation got misplaced, and refiled into the new words pile. Nobody noticed, because new words were always typed out with a space between each letter to ensure there wouldn’t be any confusion. A note about an abbreviation reading “D or d” was very similar to a note on the word “shoe,” which would have been typed “S h o e.”
So when this particular note, one on how the letter d could be used in physics and chemistry to abbreviate the word “density” showed up in the wrong place, a new word was inserted in the dictionary. This word was given its own pronunciation and part of speech, and that was how it was able to sneak past all the editors.
Years later, after the word had been removed and newer editions of the dictionary had arrived, Phillip Gove, an editor, told the story of the ghost word. “Plate change imperative/urgent” was the last note in the file, and the space it would have filled was taken up by just making the definition of the next word a bit longer. Although this particular word didn’t seem to confuse anyone or cause any huge misunderstandings with the public, it still goes down in history as one of the most famous dictionary flubs of all time.
“Dord” isn’t a word; it doesn’t mean anything. But, as Gove put it, “why shouldn’t dord mean ‘density’?”
______________ Sources
Barbara and David P. Mikkelson, “Ghost Word” in Snopes Urban Legends Reference Pages © 1995-2013. Last updated July 12, 2007. (accessed February 27, 2013)
P.B. Gove, “The History of ‘Dord’”. In American Speech, Vol. 29, No. 2 (May 1954), pp. 136-138 (accessed February 27, 2013)

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