A surprising number of words exist in the Oxford English Dictionary because of typographical errors1, with some sources2,3 citing as many as 350 misheard or misspelt 'ghost words'.
It’s funny how mistakes can bring words into being. For example, ‘shamefaced’ comes from the original ‘shamefast’, which meant ‘shy’ and ‘modest’. People misheard ‘fast’ as ‘faced’, a mishearing reinforced by the association between facial expressions and shyness or embarrassment.
‘Sweetheart’ was born from ‘sweetard’ in the same way. So was ‘pea’, which used to be ‘pease’.
Then there’s words such as ‘dord’. ‘Dord’ first appeared in Webster’s New International Dictionary in 1934 as a noun meaning ‘density’. But today ‘dord’ is regarded as a ‘ghost word’. It came about because one of Webster’s editors sent in a slip of paper marked ‘D or d – density’. This was intended to add ‘density’ to a list of words that could be abbreviated with a capital ‘D’ or a lowercase ‘d’. But it made it onto the ‘words’ pile and the phrase ‘D or d’ was mistaken for a word: ‘Dord’ (aka D-or-d).
It’s not just words that change or come into being because of errors. Grammar changes, too. Did you notice the grammar error in the previous paragraph? If you didn’t, it’s because the error is being increasingly normalised in our speech. The error is there’s, a contraction of ‘there is’, which can technically only be used before a singular subject. For example, you can say: “There is a pigeon.” You can’t say: “There is pigeons everywhere!” Yet, it’s not unnatural to say: “There’s pigeons everywhere!”
- OED. (2013). Guide to the Third Edition of the OED. Retrieved from http://public.oed.com/the-oed-today/guide-to-the-third-edition-of-the-oed/
- History of English. Language issues - How new words are created. Retrieved from http://www.thehistoryofenglish.com/issues_new.html
- Bryson, B. (1990). Mother Tongue. London: Penguin
About the author
Christopher Berry is a qualified solicitor and aspiring copywriter who interned with us this year. He specialises in writing for business, children's books, science fiction for adults, and poetry. He enjoys creating pictures out of words, has a weakness for time travel, and his favourite word is 'defenestrate'.