Posted by: Jack Henry | October 26, 2017

Editor’s Corner: Ghost Words

Good morning! I heard a new term (new to me, anyway) that piqued my interest: ghost words. Since Halloween is just around the corner, this seems like the perfect time to share what I learned!

My first thought was that ghost words must be something eerie, unearthly, or maybe just vague. I was a little off-track, but I think you’ll be interested in what they actually are.

Ghost words are words that are formed by error. They are misreadings, mispronunciations, typos, transcription errors, etc. They occur because someone made a mistake, and the incorrect word was entered into a dictionary or other reference (if only for a short time). Interestingly, some ghost words made it into the dictionary, stayed there, and are still used today.

One word that is mentioned repeatedly in articles about ghost words is dord. The Online Etymology Dictionary provides this description:


1934, a ghost word printed in "Webster’s New International Dictionary" and defined as a noun used by physicists and chemists, meaning "density." In sorting out and separating abbreviations from words in preparing the dictionary’s second edition, a card marked "D or d" meaning "density" somehow migrated from the "abbreviations" stack to the "words" stack. The "D or d" entry ended up being typeset as a word, dord, and defined as a synonym for density. The mistake was discovered in 1939.

Following is an alphabetized list of other ghost words and a little information about each one (I found the list on the Grammar Girl website, but I shortened the lengthy descriptions so you’d have time to get your actual work done).

This word is a misprint of “bycoket,” a kind of cap or head-dress. It appeared in reference books for approximately 300 years before the error was discovered by James Murray, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Chaucer wrote “in durring don that longeth to a knight” meaning “in daring to do what is proper for a knight.” The phrase was misprinted in a later work by John Lydgate as “derrynge do,” and then taken by Edmund Spenser to mean “brave actions” or “manhood and chevalrie.” Sir Walter Scott used it in Ivanhoe in the manner of Spencer, using the spelling we use today, writing, “if there be two who can do a deed of such derring-do!”

This word was invented purposefully by an editor at the New Oxford American Dictionary and included in the 2001 edition to help the company track copyright violators who were lifting entries from the dictionary. If the made-up word appeared in another dictionary, it would be clear that it had been copied from the New Oxford American Dictionary.

Multiple sources say that Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary had the word “foupe” when it should have been “soupe” (another word for “swoop”) because the archaic long “s” so closely resembled the letter “f.”


Gravy became a word because a 14th century translator misread a French cookbook. The word was originally spelled with an “n”: “grane” (also sometimes spelled “graine”), and it was related to the word “grain,” which meant “anything used in cooking”; 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.” Researchers believe it was simply a scribal error. If the word had been transcribed properly, we’d be having “grany” on our mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving.

The name of the character in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline is hypothesized to be a misspelling of the name Innogen.

In Middle English, “sane” was a verb that meant “to cure” or “to heal.” A work titled Middle English Word Studies: A Word and Author Index lists a 1986 paper by Lister Matheson, and summarizes it as hypothesizing that “sane” was a misreading of the verb “save” (also spelled “saue”) that came from the Latin “sanare,” which meant “to cure” or “to heal.”


This word was crated due to a misprint in the 15th century. The Roman philosopher Cicero died in 43 BC, but his work has been read ever since. Two of his “Letters to Atticus” (one, two) have the word “sittybas” (possibly “sittubas”—sources disagree), which 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 apparently 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.”


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.

Donna Bradley Burcher | Senior Technical Editor | Symitar®

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