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Something interesting has happened on (just about) every day of the year, and Daily TWiP provides the proof. An offshoot of my local events column The Week in Preview (affectionately known as TWiP), Daily TWiP was published April 2008-Aug. 2011 and is still giving readers reasons to celebrate.

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Daily TWiP – Feb. 28, 1939: The non-word “dord” is discovered in Webster’s New International Dictionary

Even lexicographers make mistakes. An editor at Merriam-Webster discovered a big one Feb. 28, 1939 when he realized the word “dord,” which had been included in the second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary, didn’t have an etymology. A bit of research soon revealed that “dord” was not, in fact, an actual word.

The error was traced back to a new abbreviation for the letter “D” submitted by Austin M. Patterson, the dictionary’s chemistry editor. The slip read “d or D, cont./density,” which meant that density should be added to list of words that can be abbreviated by a lowercase or uppercase “D.”

Headwords on slips were typed with a space between each letter, so “D or d” looked like “D o r d.” The slip was somehow filed as a word instead of an abbreviation and subsequently added to the dictionary as “dord,” with the definition of “density.”

The non-word made it past proofreaders and into print, appearing on page 771 in the second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary, snuggled between “Dorcopsis” (“a genus of small kangaroos of Papua”) and “dore” (“golden in color”).

The second edition was published in 1934, giving “dord” a peaceful yet uneventful five years as a legitimate word (it never entered into common use) before its lack of etymology triggered warning bells for an editor. The non-word was officially struck from the pages of the 1940 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary and “density” was added as an additional meaning for the abbreviation “D or d” as originally intended.

It was apparently hard, however, for Merriam-Webster to say goodbye to “dord,” as the non-word can be found in copies of the dictionary printed well into the 1940s. Even Philip Gove, a New Hampshirite and Merriam-Webster editor who penned a letter of explanation regarding the error to “American Speech” in 1954, seemed sad to see it go.

“It’s probably too bad,” he wrote, “for why shouldn’t ‘dord’ mean density?”

– Teresa Santoski


Originally published Feb. 28, 2011.

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