Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Dord Day

[posted by Callimachus]

Tomorrow -- February 28th, is Dord day. Says me. Feb. 28, 1939, is the day the word "dord" was discovered in Webster's New International Dictionary by someone who recognized it wasn't a word at all.

And it had been there for five years.

"Dord" was defined as a noun used by physicists and chemists, meaning "density."

Dictionary publishers have been known to slip fake entry ghost words into their texts -- also known delightfully as "Mountweazels" (available-band-name of the day) -- to snare plagiarists.

The neologism Mountweazel was coined by the magazine New Yorker, based on a false entry for Lillian Virginia Mountweazel in the 1975 edition of the New Columbia Encyclopedia.

That according to Wikipedia. Deliciously, the Wikipedia entry on "fictitious entry" notes that, "The term Nihilartikel for a fictitious entry originated at the German Wikipedia but was later identified as a hoax."

Dord, however, was an honest boo-boo. Snopes explains:

In the first edition of Webster's, entries for abbreviations and words had been intermingled -- the abbreviation lb (for "pound"), for example, would be found immediately after the entry for the word lazy. In the second edition, however, abbreviations were supposed to be collected in a separate section at the back of the dictionary. In 1931, a card had been prepared bearing the notation "D or d, cont/ density" to indicate that the next edition of the dictionary should include additional definitions for D and d as abbreviations of the word density. Somehow the card became misdirected during the editorial process and landed in the "words" pile rather than the "abbreviations" pile. The "D or d" notation ended up being set as the single word dord, a synonym for density. As Philip Babcock Gove, editor-in-chief of the third edition of Webster's New International Dictionary wrote in a 1954 article:

As soon as someone else entered the pronunciation, 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.

So let tomorrow be the day you remind yourself there are no absolute authorities. Double-check everything.

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