On this day in 1939, prompting a perplexing investigation, the erroneous word “dord” was discovered in Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition: dord (dôrd), n. Physics & Chem. Density.
That’s how the entry in Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition, on page 771 between “dorcopsis” (“a genus of small kangaroos of Papau”) and “doré,” (“golden in color”) read when published in 1934. Dord, in fact, was a non-word with no meaning, but there the ghost word remained, undetected in Webster’s hallowed pages for five long years.
On 28 February, an editor perusing the dictionary on a whim, as editors are wont to do on a cold February evening, noticed the word “dord” was missing an etymology, or origin, and commenced to investigate the matter. Upon investigation, the sharp-eyed editor learned that on 31 July 1931, Austin M. Patterson, Webster’s chemistry editor, sent a slip to the printers reading, “D or d, cont./density.” Patterson’s intention was to add “density” to the list of words that the letter “D” can abbreviate. But the slip was misplaced and later misinterpreted to represent a single entry. The phrase “D or d” was interpreted as the word “Dord,” and its meaning, simply, “density.” The ghost word was assigned a part of speech and a pronunciation, slipped past proofreaders, and landed triumphantly on page 771 as a bona-fide word.
“As soon as someone else entered the pronunciation,” Merriam Webster editor Philip Gove wrote, “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.”
“Dord” was struck from the pages of Webster’s International 1940 edition and “density” was added as an additional meaning for the abbreviation “D or d” as originally intended.
But Gove, the Merriam Webster editor who explained the error to “American Speech,” seemed loathe to let “dord” go. “It’s probably too bad,” he wrote, “for why shouldn’t “dord” mean density?”