Rhodri Marsden's interesting objects: Page 771 of Webster's New International Dictionary

The word 'dord' had sneakily crept into the English language. But how?

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* Today in 1939, an employee of G&C Merriam Company was scanning the 2nd edition of Webster's New International Dictionary – known internally as W2 – when he or she stumbled across a word on page 771 that didn't look quite right. 'Dord' sat in between 'Dorcopsis' (a genus of small kangaroos of Papua) and 'doré' (gold in colour), and was defined as 'density'. But the word had no etymology. A memo was quickly drafted and marked 'urgent'. The word 'dord', it seemed, had sneakily crept into the English language. But how?

* Internal investigations revealed how the "most notable error in the history of lexicography" had come about. (If you're sitting there thinking "Jeez, it's only a word," you're forgetting how fastidious lexicographers are.) Back in 1931, Dr Austin Patterson, the chemistry editor of the dictionary, had submitted a 3in x 5in slip on which he'd typed 'D or d, cont/density'. What he meant to convey was that an upper case or lower case 'D' could be used as abbreviation for density. But an over-zealous typist figured he meant 'dord'. Whoops.

* Once 'D or d' had been stripped of its spaces and its status as an abbreviation, things began to snowball. It was assigned a part of speech (n.) and, later, a pronunciation (dôrd). "As soon as someone entered the pronunciation," wrote editor Philip B Gove some 15 years later, "dord was given the slap on the back that sent its breath into being." For five years, 'dord' lurked in the New International Dictionary; that line was eventually removed, and the definition of 'doré furnace' was lengthened by two words to make up the space. Phew.

* A 'dord' is, in fact, a Bronze Age Irish trumpet. This fact is not acknowledged by the online dictionary at merriam-webster.com. Maybe they're embarrassed.

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