Mysterious Ghost Words And How They Ended Up In The Dictionary

Antiquated words are one thing. Take "thee," "thou," "thy," and "thine," for example: you'll almost never see anyone use those over "you," "your," and "yours" these days. Yet the archaic terms were once regular fixtures in English and still have clear definitions (via Go to a dictionary and you'll likely find them, with examples. But what if you come upon a word in that dictionary that has never been used and doesn't really exist?

Meriam-Webster calls such words ghost words, "a word form never in established usage." The Cambridge Dictionary concurs, with slightly different wording, and offers an explanation for how such ghost terms came to be. The answer isn't spirits of words from other languages come back to haunt their English killers. Ghost words, by and large, come from mistakes. People making up lists may misread, mispronounce, or inappropriately combine or mangle words, resulting in phantom terms with no prior root and presumed definitions.

Walter William Skeat coined the phrase "ghost word" in 1886. Skeat was president of the London Philological Society, and his annual address that year looked at the challenge posed by ghost words through the example "abacot." An abacot was, according to Webster at the time, a former "cap of state" — meaning a hat — used by the English monarch (the correct term for such is bycocket). Skeat praised the work of the Society's editors, who realized there was no foundation for the word "abacot" and expunged it from the New English Dictionary that was being prepared.

There have been several infamous ghost words

Ghost words may not be technically real, and the London Philological Society may have zealously worked to catch and remove them from lists and dictionaries, but that hasn't stopped some of them from gaining a certain amount of currency. "Abacot" may have been such a ghost word; the man who took it off the list apparently felt the need to defend himself (per Walter William Skeat's address to the Society in 1886). Skeat also cited "kime" as an example in his address. "Kime" won some notoriety when it appeared in a notable publication, the Edinburgh Review, in an 1808 article by Sydney Smith. Writing about presumed customs within Hinduism, Smith claimed that "some [Hindus] run kimes through their hands." A critic of the critic extrapolated from the context some diabolic instrument of torture, but "kime" was just a misprint of the word "knife," as Smith explained in a subsequent edition.

A less dramatic example of a ghost word is "dord." Between 1934 and 1947 (per Merriam-Webster), this word appeared between "Dorcopsis" and "doré," per Smithsonian, and was defined as a synonym of density used by physicists and chemists. But in 1939, an editor of the dictionary got suspicious and did a little digging. He found no examples of "dord" ever being used. The ghost word was traced to a 1931 paper that indicated upper and lower-case Ds could be used to abbreviate density: "D or d." Someone mashed the note into a new word.

Dictionaries use ghost words for copyright protection

The people who compile and edit dictionaries, one assumes, would be the least enthusiastic about ghost words. The job practically demands being a stickler for accuracy in definition, etymology, and usage. But some of those editors have found a use for these otherwise troublesome ghost words — though naturally, a new purpose brings with it a new word to describe said purpose.

According to World Wide Words, the personal blog of Oxford Dictionary contributor Michael Quinion, dictionary publishers will sometimes include deliberately false entries in their editions, a practice shared with mapmakers and guides to wine tasting. The term for such a word is nihilartikel, a combination of a Latin word ("nihil," or nothing) and a German one ("artikel," or article). Quinion still distinguished between a nihilartikel and a ghost word, calling the latter an example of error rather than deliberate falsehood, but both are examples of words that don't really exist (nihilartikel was proposed as such a word itself, but it has been traced back to the German language as an obscure but genuine term).

The reason nihilartikels are inserted into maps, dictionaries, and other lists is to catch copyright infringement. Unless you plan on reading the dictionary from beginning to end, you're almost certainly never going to encounter the false word and be led astray. But if a search turns up the nihilartikel in a competitor's work, the dictionary publisher who put it in knows they have a copycat on their hands.