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What Is a Ghost Word?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 23, 2024
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A ghost word is a word that is invented, often mistakenly, but still becomes a part of the language. One of the most famous ghost words is “dord,” accidentally created by dictionary editors in the 1930s. As dictionaries are the standard authorities on language, such words can be accepted without question. Some ghost words and ghost phrases are the result of mistranslation of a work into English from its original language. Others were invented by writers and became part of the language through popular usage.

Words usually enter a language because of the need to name a thing or concept. In a language like English, they are often derived from words in earlier languages such as French, Latin, or Greek. Other times, a neologism, or new word, is created by altering or combining already existing words. A ghost word is different; it is generally not created by these processes, but is wholly invented, sometimes by accident. Despite this, it passes into common usage, becoming a “real” word.

The most well-known example of a ghost word is “dord.” This word was created accidentally created by the editors of the Webster’s Dictionary in the 1930s. An editor submitted a note for the dictionary’s list of abbreviations, citing “D or d” as chemists’ shorthand for “density.” A proofreading error resulted in “dord” being listed as a synonym for density. Later editors removed the entry, but not before the word had been used elsewhere, whimsically or otherwise.

Another common form of the ghost word is a “ghost phrase,” such as the famed “glass slipper” from the fairy tale Cinderella. Despite the dangerous impracticality of such footwear, the glass slipper has become a key feature of the classic story. Scholars suspect this detail was created by mistaking the French word vair, or fur, for verre, glass, when the story was first rendered in English. The Bible has similar mistranslations, such as placing an apple, a fruit not native to the Middle East, in the Garden of Eden. This is probably the result of translating the Latin word malum, which means both “evil” and “apple.”

According to Robert Hendrickson’s Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, a ghost word can result from a nonsense word invented by a writer. A prime example is “jabberwocky,” invented by Lewis Carroll for his poem of the same name. Several other nonsense words from Carroll’s poem have joined the English language as well, including “chortle,” a kind of laugh. Another example is “panjandrum,” coined by 18th-century writer Samuel Foote in a nonsense passage. Although Foote intended to make his passage impossible to memorize, the word panjandrum, meaning a pretentious official, became memorable nonetheless.

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