In 1886, a lexicographer named Walter Skeat first used the phrase “ghost words” to describe words that he said had “no real existence.” In other words, ghost words are words that weren’t real to begin with—they made it into the dictionary because of an error or misunderstanding.
For example, it appears that “gravy” only became a word because a 14th-century translator misread a French cookbook. Old French spelled with an N: “grane” (also sometimes spelled “grain”), and it was related to the word “grain,” which according to the Oxford English Dictionary, meant “anything used in cooking” at the time.
But English cookbooks translated from French in the 14th century and later nearly always have a V or a U instead of the N, leading to the word “gravy” that sounds so right to us today. Researchers believe it was merely a transcription error. If the word had been appropriately transcribed, we’d be having “grany” on our mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving.
In the 15th century, a misprint gave us another ghost word: “syllabus.” The Roman philosopher Cicero died in 43 BC, but we still read his work. Two of his “Letters to Atticus” have the word sittybas” (or possibly “sittubas”—sources disagree). Either way, it was a Greek word meaning “a label for a book or parchment” or “title-slip,” but one printing of this work mistakenly spelled the word as “syllabus.”
People thought “syllabus” was Latin, and the spelling stuck so well that “syllabus” took on its new meaning in the mid-1600s and now even has a fake Latin plural: “syllabi” (although “syllabuses” is also listed as an option in all the dictionaries I checked.)
Here’s a more recent misunderstanding that gave us a new word. We got the word “tweed”—a type of wool—from a misunderstanding of the Scottish word “tweel,” which was how the Scots said “twill.” That mistake may have happened because there’s a Tweed river in Scotland, so when people heard or saw “tweel,” they thought of the Tweed River; but regardless of how it happened, “tweed” became an established word for the cloth in London in the mid-1800s.
Here’s an even more recent ghost word you may not have heard of, but it has a quirky origin: “dord.” The story goes that the original dictionary entry was “D or d” (capital “d” or lowercase “d”)—as an abbreviation for “density in physics or chemistry”—but someone who worked on the entry misread it as a word spelled d-o-r-d instead of “D or d,” and thus, the word “dord” was born in the 1934 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary.
I like to imagine a bleary-eyed employee looking at it and thinking, “‘Dord.’ Sounds like a word to me!” but actually, when people working on entries typed out the spelling of a word, it was standard to leave a space between each letter, so it wasn’t so far fetched to think that whoever typed “D or d” had meant “D o r d” and simply forgot to put a space between the O and the R. (7)
“Dord” isn’t in dictionaries anymore, though. A Merriam-Webster editor discovered the mistake, and the entry was corrected 13 years later, in 1947.
Not every non-word that ends up in a dictionary gets there by accident, though. Some are intentional, such as the one that was invented by an editor at the New Oxford American Dictionary and was included in the 2001 edition to help the company track copyright violators who were lifting entries from the dictionary. If the made-up word Oxford had created appeared in another dictionary, it would be clear that it had been copied from them.
The word was “esquivalience,” which they defined as “the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities.” They even gave it a made-up etymology, saying it arose in the late 19th century, perhaps from the French word “esquiver” meaning “dodge” or “slink away.”
Names for Intentionally Deceptive Words
Some people don’t believe that words created on purpose are true ghost words. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary definition for “ghost word” would include such words, but the Dictionary.com entry would not.
And there are, in fact, two other words that language geeks use to describe intentionally deceptive non-words: “mountweazel” and “nihilartikel.”
Some encyclopedias also include fake entries to catch copyright infringers, and Henry Alford, the author of a 2005 New Yorker article about “esquivalience,” chose the entry for Lillian Virginia Mountweazel in the 1975 New Columbia Encyclopedia to coin a term intentional fakes. Amusingly, the encyclopedia described the fake Ms. Mountweazel as
“a fountain designer turned photographer who was celebrated for a collection of photographs of rural American mailboxes titled ‘Flags Up!’” She was said to have been born in Bangs, Ohio, in 1942, only to die “at 31 in an explosion while on assignment for ‘Combustibles’ magazine.” (8)
You can see why Alford chose “mounteweazel” as the term to use for a fake entry.
And yes, I checked: Henry Alford is the name of a real modern writer. I wondered if that was a ruse because Henry Alford is also the name of a well-known language writer from the 1800s.
The German term “nihilartikel” seems to predate “mountweazel” by at least a year or two, though, as a term to describe an intentionally fake dictionary entry. It’s a combination of the Latin “nihil,” meaning “nothing” and the German “Artikel,” meaning “article. I say it predates “mountweazel” by at least a year or two because its origin is a bit in dispute.
Wikipedia and Wiktionary both say it is itself a fake, citing the origin as “a fictitious March 2004 English-language Wikipedia article.” However, the site World Wide Words, which I trust more than Wikipedia says that the word has had “half a dozen appearances in German sources since 2000, more than in English,” suggesting “that it is a real, [but] rare, native German word.”
As an aside, dictionaries and encyclopedias aren’t the only reference works that include fake entries. Maps also sometimes include made-up streets or even towns that publishers can use to track copyright infringement, and these also have multiple names such as “paper towns,” “phantom settlements,” and “trap streets” since they are used to trap plagiarists.