On this day in 1939, as the world fell apart overseas, an alert editor at the G. & C. Merriam Company in Springfield, Massachusetts noticed an oddity in the company’s flagship dictionary, the New International: a word, on page 771, without an etymology. The culprit, dord, carried a one-word definition: density.

The editor, flummoxed by the situation, began investigating and discovered that:

Dr. Austin M. Peterson, special editor for chemistry, sent to the editorial office of the G. & C. Merriam Company on July 31, 1931, a 3 X 5 white slip on which was typed (not handwritten) in two lines: ‘D or d, cont./density.’ The then current New International, the first edition (1909), enters in the main vocabulary at the letter D a block of abbreviations divided into ‘a In the form of D.’ and ‘b In the form of d. or D.’ The expansion ‘density’ is not included. The 3 X 5 cited was intended to be the first copy for the inclusion of an additional abbreviation in the new edition, and the ‘cont.’ (for continued) simply meant that whoever did the typing knew that the slip was or would be one of several for the letter as an abbreviation. Such abbreviations were transferred in the second edition (1934) from the main vocabulary to an Abbreviations section in the back matter, where ‘density’ as an expansion of D or d is included, but not on the basis of the typed slip.

Dr. Patterson’s slip got misdirected for a curious reason involving a practice quite pertinent to ‘matters lexicographical.’ Our instructions for typing copy for the printer require a single space between the letters of the definiendum to be set in boldface (with still another space between separate constituents of an open compound). This is (1) to set off unmistakably what is to be set in entry boldface and (2) to give room for later insertion, on the same line, of stress marks and centered dots for syllabification. The original typist also types a continuous wavy line under the word, to indicate that it is to be set in boldface. It is then edited in three stages for the printer by adding: (1) in ink, the diacritic marks, within boldface letters, and the part of speech; (2) in ink, the pronunciation in parentheses; and (3) in ink or typing, the etymology in brackets.

Once the cited slip became separated, the word dord began to take shape. First, an office stylist drew a continuous wavy line under ‘D or d,’ added a label ‘Physics & Chem.,’ and marked the initial letter of ‘density’ as a capital. The basic error here was either not recognizing that the ‘or’ was solid and should have been italicized or assuming that the typist had failed to leave a space between the o and the r. Of course, contributory errors lay in ignoring the ‘cont.’ even though there was now no preceding slip for ‘D or d’ and in failure to question the whole business in the light of certain complete unfamiliarity with such a word as dord. The capping of ‘density’ threw a mist over it all by putting the matter into the style of a ‘proper’ dictionary entry. Thus the slip was prepared for retyping on buff for the printer.

The next handler (the second typist) did assume that the first typist had failed to leave a space between o and r; at least so she interpreted the stylist’s continuous wavy line, for her retyped buff copy shows ‘D or d’ with a wavy line below it. The ‘cont.’ too was retyped, but for no ascertainable reason capped. At this point came another opportunity for laying this ghost, but a stylist instead gave it further hold on life. The meaningless ‘Cont.’ was crossed out, the initial letter of the definiendum was lowercased, and the resultant dord was labeled ‘n.‘ for noun. As soon as someone else entered the pronunciation (dôrd), no doubt by analogy, dord was given the slap on the back that sent breath into its being. Whether the etymologist ever got the chance to stifle it, there is no evidence. It simply has no etymology. Thereafter, only a proofreader had a final opportunity at the word, but as the proofs passed under his scrutiny he was at that moment not so alert and suspicious as usual.

Dord lived for five years. Until, on this day in 1939, the hero of our story, the alert editor, spotted the problem. From there, you can guess what happened:

His curiosity led to the writing of another slip now in our files marked ‘plate change / imperative / urgent.’ Soon afterward the printer was instructed to cut a line out of the printing plate, the space was closed up by expanding by a few letters the definition of doré furnace from ‘a furnace for refining doré bullion’ (one line) to ‘a furnace in which doré bullion is refined’ (two lines), and in 1940 bound books began appearing without the offending word. Probably too bad, for why shouldn’t dord mean ‘density’?

Why indeed? It’s a living language, after all. Poor dord. [For more click here.]