The Haunting History of Ghost Words
Simply put, ghost words are fake words that end up in the dictionary. This is the primary definition of a ghost word, courtesy of YourDictionary:
“A word that has come into a dictionary, grammar, or other scholarly work as a result of a misreading or misinterpretation, as by mistaking a typographical error for an actual word.”
Everyone makes silly mistakes from time to time. And sometimes those silly mistakes have long-lasting effects. Ghost words have appeared in English dictionaries for as long as we’ve had English dictionaries. They're even in the Scrabble dictionary now. As you can probably imagine, their origins and uses are often amusing to learn about. The following are a few of the most well-known examples.
“Cairbow” is a misspelling of “caribou,” otherwise known as a reindeer. This non-word first appeared in an early 20th-century version of the Oxford English Dictionary. “Cairbou” was supposed to appear in a usage example of the word “glare,” but the author accidentally used the typo “cairbow” instead.
The original spelling of “cherry” is “cherise.” The change came about due to a difference between languages. “Cherise” is an older French word. When the word was added to the English lexicon, people incorrectly assumed that the word was a plural form. In English, the “se” sound can often signify plurality. Needing a singular form, they created the new word “cherry.”
This ghost word came to be because of a simple misreading of a few letters. The real term that “dord” comes from is “D (or d.)” “D” is an abbreviation for “density” when discussing physics or chemistry. When editors added the definition to the dictionary, the example did not include any parentheses around the “or d” portion. Instead, it read as “D or d.” With those letters close together, someone saw them as the single word “Dord.”
“Gravy” is another example of French and English not playing well with each other. In the 14th century, a translator misinterpreted the French word “grane.” Back then, English cookbooks commonly changed the N’s in French words to U’s or V’s when translating them.
As a result, “grane” transformed from its original form to the one we now associate with the delicious sauce we pour over potatoes, turkey and other food. “Gravy” is also a rare example of a ghost word that went on to become a real word.
This fake word was a simple yet funny typo for “knife.” It first appeared in the Scottish magazine the Edinburgh Review in 1808. The reference was to a report of Hindus stabbing their feet with knives, but the word readers saw instead was “kimes.” People assumed it was some item unique to Hindu culture. By the time the error was correct, “kime” had circulated enough to end up in the dictionary.
“Mountweazel” is an example of when a ghost word is both a fictional person and an intentional creation. In mountweazel’s case, it was a purposeful reference to a fictional character in the fourth edition of The New Columbia Encyclopedia. Referencing fake people was a common tactic used to catch copyright infringement. If “mountweazel” showed up in another resource, the organizers of The New Columbia Encyclopedia would know that someone was copying them.
The entry was about a fictional woman named Lillian Virginia Mountweazel. She was a fountain designer who became a photographer. After becoming a photographer, she used government grants to publish photo essays about absurd subject matters, such as rural American mailboxes. When you unscramble letters in "mountweazel," you get such gems as zonulae, automen, and lomenta.
This one is unique, as “morse” is a real word. Morse code, named after inventor Samuel Morse in 1838, is a form of communication using dots and dashes. The issue is that words can have many definitions. And sometimes the definitions aren’t real. That’s what happened with “morse.”
In The Monastery, a book written by Sir Walter Scott in 1821, there is a line that reads, “Dost thou so soon morse thoughts of slaughter?” “Morse” was a spelling error here. The original word was supposed to be “nurse.” And so, “morse” became a synonym of “nurse” for a time.
The ghost word “phantomnation” owes its existence to a 19th-century man with a strong preference for combining compound words into single words. This man, Richard Paul Jodrell, even wrote a book about the matter: The Compounding of English Words: When and Why Joining or Separation is Preferable. He felt so strongly about this that he even combined words when quoting other people.
One instance was when he quoted Alexander Pope’s translation of The Odyssey. In one line, the original book reads, “All the phantom nations of the dead.” True to his obsession, Jodrell combined “phantom” and “nations” together to create the new (but still fake) word “phantomnations.”
“Syllabus” is another example of what a single misprint can do. The original and correct spelling is “sittybas,” as seen in Letters to Atticus, written by the Roman philosopher Cicero. Unfortunately, a later printing of his work mistakenly spelled the word in the form we know today: syllabus.
Starting in the 1600s, “syllabus” became the accepted form of the word and took on the full meaning that it has today. It even has a fake plural form, “syllabi.”
Words That Are Surprisingly Real
Ghost words usually get sorted out of the dictionaries, though some do end up sticking around to possess our lexicon. That’s how languages work: You never know what will become a real word. Words and terms we disregard can still become official. You can find a few great examples in our list of surprising words added to the dictionary. Memorize your favorites and impress your friends with your knowledge of what’s new in the world of word lovers. You will not be able to find them in our word finder tool though.
Zac Pricener has been a content creator for the past eight years. He’s a bit of an all-around nerd, and he has a bad habit of working movie and TV show references into conversations whenever possible.