The word of the week this week is special because it is not exactly a word at all. On one hand, it is not a real word. On the other hand, it is a collection of letters that are pronounced like any other English word, that has a precise meaning or definition, and that appeared in Webster’s New International Dictionary for some 13 years. Our word this week is “Dord,” and it is a textbook example of a Ghost Word, not an actual word but with all the makings (barring an etymology and usage) of any other, real word. Its history is amusing more than anything, but it also invites a number of fascinating, broader questions about language.
Dord worked its way into the second edition of Webster’s Dictionary because of a simple mistake in compiling. According to Snopes, the abbreviation for density, “D or d,” was sent to the wrong place and then evidently misread as “D o r d.” Thus “dord” took its place in the dictionary as a synonym for density most often used by physicists and chemists. The mistake was finally caught in 1939, but according to the Smithsonian Magazine, it was not until 1947 that it was finally removed. And Sure. Why not? As Philip Babcock Gove, a Webster’s editor, put it, “Why shouldn’t ‘dord’ mean ‘density?’”
Honestly, that is a fair question, and the only obvious answer is a tautology: “Because it doesn’t!” Fine, it lacked etymology and prior usage, but if people had seen dord in the dictionary and started using it as a synonym for density, surely it would have become a word then. Even acknowledging that no one ever really used “dord,” its place in the dictionary had to count for something. After all, if no one on Earth says the word “haberdasher” for ten years, it’s not as though it would cease to be a real word.
So maybe what’s really at stake is the power of linguistic authorities and institutions – the “gatekeepers” of languages. Probably the closest that English comes to a central linguistic authority is its dictionaries, which (with occasion disagreement) standardize vocabulary, spelling, pronunciation, meaning, and usage. Yet the “dord” debacle seems to make a case for a bottom-up model of linguistic authority, in which case institutions like dictionaries are not really authorities at all so much as record keepers. Of course, there are stronger standardizing institutions in other languages. The French, for example, have the Académie française, the highest authority on all matters pertaining to the French language. The Académie française has more power to determine “proper French” than any dictionary has to determine “proper English,” but still it is hard to imagine even the Académie française getting away with the likes of Dord.