urban legends

James A. Landau JJJRLandau at AOL.COM
Mon Dec 17 12:59:59 UTC 2001

In a message dated 12/17/01 3:14:58 AM Eastern Standard Time,
rkmck at EARTHLINK.NET writes:

> I have just been reading the Urban Legends page and came across one about
> dictionaries that seems familiar.  I have checked it in my MW Unabridged,
> 2nded (1934), and, by God, it's there!
>  It's the entry "dord"; which has a pron but no etym.  The def
> is Physics & Chemistry Density. There is no such word. Seems
> the entry, which should have gone to the abbreviation section as "D or d",
> into the word pile and was entered alphabetically as a word. Once a
> pronunciation was added (Rima,you are not to blame for this one), it became
> an official entry in the MW Unabridged. No one seems to have noticed
> that it had no etym, however.

In fact it was the lack of etymology that eventually gave it away.

>From URL http://members.aol.com/gulfhigh2/words1.html

DORD is a non-existent word entered into the second edition of Webster's New
International Dictionary by mistake. The following is taken from The Story of
Webster's Third: Philip Gove's Controversial Dictionary and Its Critics by
Herbert C. Morton (1994):

When the guidelines for etymology in Webster's Third were nearing completion,
[editor of the "Third"] took time out to add the story of dord to the lore of
how things can go wrong in dictionary making. Dord was a word that had
appeared spontaneously and had found a quiet niche in the English language
two decades earlier. It was recorded in Webster's Second in 1934 on page 771,
where it remained undetected for five years. It disappeared from the
dictionary a year later without ever having entered common parlance. The
facts, which had been established years earlier through a search of company
files, were as follows, as abridged from Gove's explanation.
The lack of an etymology for dord, meaning "density," was noted by an editor
on February 28, 1939, when he was perusing the dictionary. Startled by the
omission, he went to the files to track down what had happened and what
needed to be done. There, he found, first, a three-by-five white slip that
had been sent to the company by a consultant in chemistry on July 31, 1931,
bearing the notation "D or d, cont/ density." It was intended to be the basis
for entering an additional abbreviation at the letter D in the next edition.
The notation "cont," short for "continued," was to alert the typist to the
fact that there would be several such entries for abbreviations at D.

A change in the organization of the dictionary possibly added to the
confusion that followed. For the 1934 edition, all abbreviations were to be
assembled in a separate "Abbreviations" section at the back of the book; in
the previous edition words and abbreviations appeared together in a single
alphabetical listing (which is how they again appeared in the Third Edition.)
But after the original slip was typed for editorial handling, it was
misdirected. Eventually, it came to be treated with the words rather than
with the abbreviations.

Th editorial stylist who received the first typed version should have marked
"or" to be set in italics to indicate that the letters were abbreviations (D
or d). But instead, she drew a continuous wavy line underneath to signify
that "D or d" should be set in boldface in the manner of an entry word, and a
label was added, "Physics & Chem." Since entry words were to be typed with a
space between letters, the editorial stylist may have inferred that the
typist had intended to write d o r d; the mysterious "cont" was ignored.
These errors should have been caught when the word was retyped on a different
color slip for the printer, but they were not. The stylist who received this
version crossed out the "cont" and added the part-of-speech label n for noun.

"As soon as someone else entered the pronunciation," Gove wrote, "dord was
given the slap on the back that sent breath into its being. Whether the
etymologist ever got a chance to stifle it, there is no evidence. It simply
has no etymology. Thereafter, only a proofreader had final opportunity at the
word, but as the proof passed under his scrutiny he was at the moment not so
alert and suspicious as usual."

The last slip in the file -- added in 1939 -- was marked "plate change
imperative/urgent." The entry was deleted, and the space was closed up by
lengthening the entry that followed. In 1940 bound books began appearing
without the ghost word but with a new abbreviation. In the list of meanings
for the abbreviation "D or d" appeared the phrase "density, Physics."
Probably too bad, Gove added, "for why shouldn't dord mean density?"

A footnote indicates the excerpt above was based on Philip Gove, "The History
of Dord," American Speech, 29 (1954): 136-8.

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