Ghost word

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A ghost word is a word published in a dictionary or similarly authoritative reference work even though it had not previously had any meaning or been used intentionally. A ghost word generally originates from a typographical or linguistic error, taken as an unfamiliar word by readers.

Once authoritatively published, a ghost word occasionally may be copied widely and enter legitimate usage, or it may eventually be expunged by more fastidious lexicographers.


The term was coined by Professor Walter William Skeat in his annual address as president of the Philological Society in 1886:[1]

Of all the work which the Society has at various times undertaken, none has ever had so much interest for us, collectively, as the New English Dictionary. Dr Murray, as you will remember, wrote on one occasion a most able article, in order to justify himself in omitting from the Dictionary the word abacot, defined by Webster as "the cap of state formerly used by English kings, wrought into the figure of two crowns". It was rightly and wisely rejected by our Editor on the ground that there is no such word, the alleged form being due to a complete mistake ... due to the blunders of printers or scribes, or to the perfervid imaginations of ignorant or blundering editors. ...

I propose, therefore, to bring under your notice a few more words of the abacot type; words which will come under our Editor's notice in course of time, and which I have little doubt that he will reject. As it is convenient to have a short name for words of this character, I shall take leave to call them "ghost-words." ... I only allow the title of ghost-words to such words, or rather forms, as have no meaning whatever.

... I can adduce at least two that are somewhat startling. The first is kime ... The original ... appeared in the Edinburgh Review for 1808. "The Hindoos ... have some very savage customs ... Some swing on hooks, some run kimes through their hands ..."

It turned out that "kimes" was a misprint for "knives", but the word gained currency for some time. A more drastic example followed, also cited in Skeat's address:[2]

A similar instance occurs in a misprint of a passage of one of Walter Scott's novels, but here there is the further amusing circumstance that the etymology of the false word was settled to the satisfaction of some of the readers. In the majority of editions of The Monastery, we read: ... dost thou so soon morse thoughts of slaughter? This word is nothing but a misprint of nurse; but in Notes and Queries two independent correspondents accounted for the word morse etymologically. One explained it as to prime, as when one primes a musket, from O. Fr. amorce, powder for the touchhole (Cotgrave), and the other by to bite (Lat. mordere), hence "to indulge in biting, stinging or gnawing thoughts of slaughter". The latter writes: "That the word as a misprint should have been printed and read by millions for fifty years without being challenged and altered exceeds the bounds of probability." Yet when the original manuscript of Sir Walter Scott was consulted, it was found that the word was there plainly written nurse.

One edition of The Monastery containing the misprint was published by the Edinburgh University Press in 1820.[3]

More examples[edit]

In his address, Skeat exhibited about 100 more specimens that he had collected.

Other examples include:

  • The supposed Homeric Greek word στήτη (stētē) = "woman", which arose thus: In Iliad Book 1 line 6 is the phrase διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε (diastētēn erisante) = "two (i.e. Achilles and Agamemnon) stood apart making strife". However someone unfamiliar with dual number verb inflections read it as διά στήτην ἐρίσαντε (dia stētēn erisante) = "two making strife because of a stētē", and they guessed that stētē meant the woman Briseis who was the subject of the strife, influenced by the fact that nouns ending with eta are usually feminine.[4]
  • The placename Sarum, which arose by misunderstanding of the abbreviation Sar~ used in a medieval manuscript to mean some early form such as "Sarisberie" (= Salisbury).[5]
  • As an example of an editing mistake, "dord" was defined as a noun meaning density (mass per unit volume). When the second edition of Webster's New International Dictionary was being prepared, an index card that read "D or d" with reference to the word "density" was incorrectly misfiled as a word instead of an abbreviation. The entry existed in more than one printing from 1934 to 1947.[6][7]
  • A Concise Dictionary of Pronunciation (ISBN 978-0-19-863156-9) accidentally included the nonexistent word testentry (evidently a feature of work-in-progress), with spurious British and US pronunciations as though it rhymed with pedantry.[citation needed][importance of example(s)?]
  • The OED explains the ghost word phantomnation as "Appearance of a phantom; illusion. Error for phantom nation".[8] Alexander Pope's (1725) translation of the Odyssey originally said, "The Phantome-nations of the dead". Richard Paul Jodrell's (1820) Philology of the English Language, which omitted hyphens from compounds, entered it as one word, "Phantomnation, a multitude of spectres". Lexicographers copied this error into various dictionaries, such as, "Phantomnation, illusion. Pope." (Worcester, 1860, Philology of the English Language), and "Phantomnation, appearance as of a phantom; illusion. (Obs. and rare.) Pope." (Webster, 1864, An American dictionary of the English language).[9]
  • The Japanese word kusege (癖毛, compounding kuse "habit; vice" and ke "hair", "frizzy hair") was mistranslated as "vicious hair" in the authoritative Kenkyūsha's New Japanese-English Dictionary from the first edition (1918) to the fourth (1974), and corrected in the fifth edition (2003) "twisted [kinky, frizzy] hair; hair that stands up".[10] This phantom word was not merely an unnoticed lexicographical error, generations of dictionary users copied the mistake. For example, a Tokyo hospital of cosmetic surgery had a long-running display advertisement in the Asian edition of Newsweek that read, "Kinky or vicious hair may be changed to a lovely, glossy hair" [sic].[11] This hair-straightening ad was jokingly used in the "Kinky Vicious" title of a 2011 Hong Kong iPhoneography photo exhibition.[12]
  • The JIS X 0208 standard, the most widespread system to handle Japanese language with computers since 1978, has entries for 12 kanji that have no known use and were probably included by mistake (for example ). They are called 幽霊文字 (yūrei moji, "ghost characters") and are still supported by most computer systems (see: JIS X 0208#Kanji from unknown sources).[citation needed]
  • Hsigo, an apparently erroneous output from optical character recognition software for "hsiao", a creature from Chinese mythology. The typographical error appeared in several limited-audience publications but spread around the World Wide Web after the creation of a Wikipedia article about the term (which has since been corrected), due to its numerous mirrors and forks.[citation needed]
  • In his book Beyond Language: Adventures in Word and Thought, Dmitri Borgmann shows how feamyng, a purported collective noun for ferrets which appeared in several dictionaries, is actually the result of a centuries-long chain of typographical or misread-handwriting errors (from BUSYNESS to BESYNESS to FESYNES to FESNYNG to FEAMYNG).[13][14]
  • In the Irish language, the word cigire ("inspector") was invented by the scholar Tadhg Ua Neachtain, who misread cighim (pronounced [ˈciːmʲ], like modern cím) in Edward Lhuyd's Archaeologia Britannica as cigim [ˈcɪɟɪmʲ], and so constructed the verbal forms cigire, cigireacht, cigirim etc. from it.[15][16]

Speculative examples[edit]

Many neologisms, including those that eventually develop into established usages, are of obscure origin, and some might well have originated as ghost words through illiteracy, such as the term "okay". However, establishing the true origin often is not possible, partly for lack of documentation, and sometimes through obstructive efforts on the part of pranksters. The most popular etymology of the word pumpernickel bread - that Napoleon described it as "C'est pain pour Nicole!", being only fit for his horse - is thought to be a deliberate hoax. "Quiz" also has been associated with apparently deliberate false etymology. All these words and many more have remained in common usage, but they may well have been ghost words in origin.[17]

Distinguished from back-formation[edit]

A recent, incorrect use of the term "ghost word" refers to coining a new word inferred from a real word by falsely applying an etymological rule. The correct term for such a derivation is back-formation, a word that has been established since the late 19th century.[1] An example is "beforemath" derived from "aftermath", having an understandable meaning but not a commonly accepted word. A back-formation cannot become a ghost word; as a rule it would clash with Skeat's precise definition, which requires that the word forms have "no meaning".[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Skeat, Walter William; Presidential address on 'Ghost-Words' in: 'Transactions of the Philological Society, 1885-7, pages 343-374'; Published for the society by Trübner & Co., Ludgate Hill, London, 1887. May be downloaded at:
  2. ^ Wheatley, Henry Benjamin; Literary Blunders; A Chapter in the “History of Human Error”; Publisher: Elliot Stock, London 1893
  3. ^ Scott, Walter. The Monastery. Chapter 10, page 156. Published by Edinburgh University Press. 1820.
  4. ^ Homer; Fagles, Robert; Knox, Bernard MacGregor Walker (10 September 1990). "The Iliad". New York, N.Y., U.S.A. : Viking. p. 4 – via Internet Archive.
  5. ^ David Mills (20 October 2011). A Dictionary of British Place-Names. Oxford University Press. pp. 526–. ISBN 978-0-19-960908-6.
  6. ^ Emily Brewster. "Ghost Word". part of the "Ask the Editor" series at
  7. ^ "dord"., LLC. Retrieved February 21, 2012. In sorting out and separating abbreviations from words in preparing the dictionary's second edition, a card marked "D or d" meaning "density" somehow migrated from the "abbreviations" stack to the "words" stack.
  8. ^ Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM. Version 4.0, Oxford University Press. 2009.
  9. ^ William Shepard Walsh; Henry Collins Walsh; William H. Garrison; Samuel R. Harris (1890). American Notes and Queries. Westminster Publishing Company. p. 93. Available at: [1]
  10. ^ Watanabe Toshirō (渡邊敏郎); Edmund R. Skrzypczak; Paul Snowden, eds. (2003). Kenkyusha's New Japanese-English Dictionary (新和英大辞典) (5th ed.). Kenkyusha. p. 790.
  11. ^ Michael Carr (1983). "A Lexical Ghost Story: *Vicious hair" (PDF). Jinbun Kenkyū (人文研究. 66: 29–44. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-09-11. Carr (p. 40) suggests "vicious hair" for kusege (癖毛) originated through false analogy from Kenkyusha's waraguse (悪癖 "bad/vicious habit; vice") entries.
  12. ^ Dan Pordes (20 September 2011). "iPhone photos like you've never seen". CNN Travel.
  13. ^ Borgmann, Dmitri A. (1967). Beyond Language: Adventures in Word and Thought. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. pp. 79–80, 146, 251–254. OCLC 655067975.
  14. ^ Eckler, Jr., A. Ross (November 2005). "The Borgmann Apocrypha". Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics. 38 (4): 258–260.
  15. ^ O'Reilly, Edward (10 September 2018). "An Irish-English Dictionary". J. Barlow – via Google Books.
  16. ^ "Ár dtéarmaí féin".
  17. ^ Wendell Herbruck (November 2008). Word Histories - A Glossary of Unusual Word Origins. Read Books. ISBN 978-1-4437-3186-7. Available at: [2]

External links[edit]