Does your writing bring ghost words back from the dead?
Don’t be spooked. Ghost words have haunted our publications for centuries, lurking in dark corners of our dictionaries until skilled wordsmiths—think linguistic Ghost Busters—zap them from official documentation.
Except, of course, the Internet.
We often say or write words that aren’t actually words. But when these fake words receive false backing from published dictionaries, it can be difficult for even professionals to detect what’s a real word and what’s, well, dead.
So, what are ghost words? And what fake words have skulked the pages of our books?
What are Ghost Words?
Professor Walter W. Skeat, a well-respected lexicographer, was the first to coin the phrase. As delivered in his Philological Society presidential address in 1886 (start at page 350), Skeat states that ghost words are “words which have no real existence.”
Like ghosts, we may seem to see them, or may fancy that they exist; but they have no real entity. We cannot grasp them; when we would do so, they disappear.Professor Walter W. Skeat
In short, a ghost word is a fake term that was once published in dictionaries due to an error or a misunderstanding, be it a misinterpretation, mispronunciation, misreading or a typo. While ghost words are accidentally published in dictionaries and authoritative reference works, they tend to be used rarely (if ever) in actual conversation or written communication.
Ghost Words Once in Our Dictionaries
Ghost words creep across the globe, infiltrating languages from every continent. While a ghost word can speak in many tongues, the focus of this blog post is to capture ghost words in the English language.
In turn, ghost words often appeared in literary works over the years but never as defined words in dictionaries and/or authoritative reference books. These ghost words are not included in this list for that reason.
As the most commonly referenced ghost word, dord was once believed to mean “density,” according to the 1934 second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary.
Except that it doesn’t. Dictionary editor Philip Babcock Gove caught the mistake five years later, noticing that dord lacked etymology.
After checking the files, he found a note from Chemistry editor Austin M. Patterson that read “D or d, cont./density.” Patterson’s intention was to add the word “density” to the existing list of words that the letter D (either capitalized or lowercase) can abbreviate.
Instead, “D or d” became its own accidental word as “dord” with the definition of “cont./density,” bypassing printers and proofreaders as a real word.
While Merriam-Webster stopped publishing “dord” as a word by 1940, this ghost word kept popping up in textbooks and other publications until 1947. It wasn’t until May 1954 that Gove set the record straight in American Speech.
This ghost word has haunted us for hundreds of years, debuting in the second edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles in 1587. This comprehensive history of England, Scotland and Ireland claimed that a “high cap of estate, called Abacot” was made like a double crown and worn anciently by the Kings of England.
This lordly ghost word ascended the linguistical throne with its later publication in Spelman’s Glossarium (first English dictionary for law terms) and every prominent dictionary after that. James Murray, primary editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, ended its reign in 1882 when he made the case that abacot was actually a misprint of “bycocket” (a hat shaped like a bird’s beak).
Like any infamous word, abacot is dying a slow death. Authors and students of heraldry mistakenly include the ghost word within their papers and publications since it can be referenced in older, revered publications.
Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, with editions between 1755 and 1785, is known for being flawed. After all, his publication did claim that no word began with the letter X.
Then again, Johnson did have the courage to publish the word “arse” for the first time.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that his dictionary holds a ghost word or two. Johnson defines adventine as “adventitious; that which is extrinsically added.” He notes that adventine is a “word scarcely in use” with Francis Bacon’s Historia Naturalis as his source:
As for the peregrine heat, it is thus far true, that, if proportion of the adventine heat be greatly predominant to the natural heat and spirits of the body, it tendeth to dissolution or notable alteration.Historia Naturalis
However, on closer inspection, Bacon’s work actually intended the word to be “adventive.” Coincidentally enough, this word is also in Johnson’s dictionary with Bacon again as his source, as are hundreds of words within the 1755 edition.
Johnson wasn’t the only one fooled. In fact, multiple US newspapers published “adventine” as a word within their articles as late as 1920.
Talk about a ghostly ghost word! Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language in 1864 defined phantomnation as the “appearance as of a phantom; illusion.”
Dictionaries often listed Alexander Pope’s 1725 translation of The Odyssey as their example (which has since been corrected):
These solemn vows and holy offerings paid
To all the phantomnations of the dead.
Thing is, phantomnation actually derives from the phrase “phantom nation” or “phantom-nation.” In fact, it first appeared in Richard Paul Jodrell’s The Philology of English Language. Since he dropped hyphens from compound words, phantom-nation appeared in print as phantomnation.
Your guess on the meaning of this ghost word is close to its fictitious definition: “muttering talk.” That’s what was printed in the Oxford English Dictionary for momblishness which closely resembles the word “mumble.”
Turns out, this ghost word came to be from a scribal error, as detected by our dear friend Professor Skeat. As discussed at a Philological Society meeting in 1896, the misspelling first appeared in William Thynne’s publication The Workes of Geffray Chaucer in 1532 within the ninth stanza of the poem “The Assembly of Ladies”:
And howe they [the daisies] were acompanyed with mo
Ne momblysnesse and souenesse also ;
The poure penses were not disloged there ;
Because the poetry is referencing flowers here, “ne momblysnesse” is supposed to be “ne-m’oublie-mies” (plural for forget-me-nots). Just as “sounesse” is supposed to be “sovenez” (remember mes) and “penses” is supposed to be “pansies.”
The spelling of these words has since been corrected in Chaucer’s poem, thanks to Skeat. How momblishness crept into dictionaries isn’t certain, but it evaporated from reference book pages soon after Skeat’s discovery.