February 28

Ghost Word


You realize that an online word-reference can be inaccurate.  Random users can submit alterations to existing entries, or even fictional entries of their own, and they appear on your favorite dictionary site before they’ve been reviewed by a human editor.

But the convenience is hard to beat.  And the price:  free.

You’ve even subscribed to their “Word-Each-Day” email newsletter, which appears every morning in your inbox, along with a few clickable advertisements that help finance the website.  Somehow, the dictionary site seems to know what type of chocolate bar you like, and what horror novel you almost bought online the day before.

Since you’re getting information from the site, you guess it’s fair that they get information from you.

Today’s email highlights a small word you don’t recognize:  “dord,” from the fields of Physics and Chemistry, defined as a synonym for “density.”

Beneath the definition, the email explains that dord is a “ghost word” that appeared for several years in an edition of the New International Dictionary.  The word was called a ghost, because it didn’t actually exist: the error was discovered on February 28, 1931.  According to investigators, the word and definition came from a category editor, who submitted a slip for the letter d as an abbreviation for density, printed as a capital or lower case letter.  “D or d,” which was misread as “Dord.”

The story makes you smile, since it’s an example of how even a carefully edited, printed reference text can contain errors.  You feel better about using your cost-free online alternative.

Though, after a closer look, you think your Word-Each-Day email contains a glitch as well.  Instead of advertisements for your favorite Meow-Meow bars, there’s an unappetizing ad for freeze-dried protein.  Instead of a horror novel, there’s a sidebar promoting a non-fiction book of survival tips.

Something strange is going on.  You click on the underlined word, which takes you  to the main website.

The word “Dord” appears, just as it did in your email.  There’s a pronunciation guide, including an icon for the digital-voice pronunciation, and the word’s identified as a noun.  Instead of the designation from the fields of Physics or Chemistry, there’s an italicized reference to Crisis Mgmt.

And the definition has changed.  Instead of “density” the ghost word is now defined as “apocalypse.”

Advertisements for survivalist products surround the main entry:  beef jerky, water purifiers, batteries, storage kits, a crank-powered radio.  Hand-held weapons.

You haven’t been shopping for these items online.  Perhaps other people know something you don’t — and their desperate clicks have overwhelmed the site’s shopping algorithms.

On a whim, you move your onscreen cursor to the tiny speaker icon next to the spoken-word key, and click to hear the proper pronunciation of the word.

A digital sound file plays the slow rumble of a nuclear explosion.