Editor’s note: As the Trivia Geek gets back in the swing of things for 2008 (read: New Year’s hangover), he’s decided to run this Classic Geek, originally published Feb. 27, 2007, as a response to Merriam-Webster declaring w00t as the Word of the Year for 2007. This should remind you that not all editorial decisions are good ones.
If you’re ever in the presence of someone who claims to be a serious lexicographer or etymologist and want to check if said person is really just full of it, throw out the word Mountweazel, and gauge the reaction: If your subject gives you a “say what?” expression, you are not in the presence of a true word scholar. If he or she giggles and/or begins recounting the mind-numbing tale of a favorite copyright violation, you’ve got a true linguaphile on your hands.

Mountweazel, you see, refers to Lillian Mountweazel, who earned this entry in the 1975 edition of the New Columbia Encyclopedia:

“Mountweazel, Lillian Virginia, 1942-1973, American photographer, b. Bangs, Ohio. Turning from fountain design to photography in 1963, Mountweazel produced her celebrated portraits of the South Sierra Miwok in 1964. She was awarded government grants to make a series of photo-essays of unusual subject matter, including New York City buses, the cemeteries of Paris and rural American mailboxes. The last group was exhibited extensively abroad and published as Flags Up! (1972) Mountweazel died at 31 in an explosion while on assignment for Combustibles magazine.”

Mountweazel is more famous for this encyclopedia entry than her actual work because neither she nor her work ever actually existed. Mountweazel was a so-called copyright trap — a fictitious entry composed specifically to note whether persons were copying Columbia content without due attribution or royalties.

If another book showed up with a copied reference to Mountweazel, Columbia editors and lawyers would check for other copyright violations within the same work. Today, professional editors refer to such telltale fictitious content as a Mountweazel. Think of it as the lexicographer’s version of the infamous “brown M&M” contract rider used by Van Halen.

But let’s not confuse a Mountweazel with a ghost word. The former is an intentionally fictional term or entry, while the latter is something accidentally invented.

Despite the fact that reference editors so closely guard their linguistic integrity as to make stuff up in defense of their works, they do occasionally unintentionally create words without ever meaning to. One such term — which passed itself off as a scientific synonym — actually appeared and survived in five consecutive editions of Webster’s Dictionary in the 1930s.


Get the answer.

What fictional word accidentally created by a lexicographer appeared and remained undetected in five consecutive editions of Webster’s Dictionary in the 1930s?

The word is dord, listed in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary from 1934 to 1939 as a synonym for density. It appeared on page 771, between the entries for Dorcopsis (a genus of kangaroo from Papua New Guinea) and doré (containing gold or golden in color).

The only problem is that the word dord (rhymes with cord) never appeared in the English language before that edition of Webster’s, and there was nary an intentional Mountweazel afoot. In fact, a series of slight but unlikely proofreading errors led to the word’s conception.

In 1931, Webster’s chemistry editor, Austin M. Patterson, submitted a note slip that read: “D or d, cont./density.” The note intended to indicate that one could use the letter D, whether capitalized or not, as an abbreviation for the value of density in various scientific equations.

Unfortunately, the dictionary was in the process of changing where and how it listed its abbreviations. Previously, it listed all abbreviations as entries in-line with actual words, so abbreviations signified by the letter D appeared at the beginning of the D words in the dictionary, as the editor intended.

However, Webster’s was moving all abbreviations to an appendix. So when copy editors and typesetters got Patterson’s note, they thought he meant a word spelled “D o r d” (as in-house entry notes always spaced the letters for typesetter benefit) — rather than “D or d.”

The copyeditors also assumed that Patterson simply forgot to submit a pronunciation and made one up for dord, which meant, obviously, density. Thus, the word appeared and survived for five years.

But in 1939, an editor noticed that dord had no listed etymology. Tracing back through the paper notes in Merriam-Webster’s archives, the typographical gaffes that led to dord‘s conception became clear, and the famous dictionary removed the word from subsequent editions. Instead, it lives on in various lexicographical texts as an example of the necessity of editing, the nebulous nature of language — and, of course, word-worthy Geek Trivia.

The Quibble of the Week

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Check out this week’s quibble.

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