In the realm of widely circulated, non-user-generated English dictionaries, the occurrence of a misspelled entry name is virtually unheard of. This impeccable record can leave one wondering: has there ever been such an error? The meticulous processes in place for dictionary editing suggest it’s highly unlikely, especially considering the extensive database of words carried over annually, which minimizes the likelihood of typos in well-established dictionaries.

Taking Merriam-Webster as an example, the journey of a word into the dictionary is fascinating. Each potential entry begins as a suggestion identified by an editor. It’s then entered into a vast database, or corpus, which currently boasts around 70 million words. This database includes standard spellings, usage examples, and source information. Only words that have been widely used for a substantial period are considered for inclusion.

Even after a word makes it into the database, it doesn’t immediately find its way into the dictionary. It waits until the relevant section is up for review. This process involves a team of editors and definers, who meticulously evaluate each word, decide on the citations to include, and determine any additional information needed. Given the numerous expert eyes scrutinizing every new entry, the chance of a misspelling in a major dictionary’s entry name is exceedingly slim.

While the process is remarkably thorough, to err is human, and there have been extraordinary instances of errors in established dictionaries. A notable example is the 1934 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary, which included the non-existent word “word” on page 771, defined as a term in physics and chemistry relating to density.

This peculiar entry went unnoticed until 1939 when an editor observed that ‘word’ lacked an etymology. Further investigation revealed a mix-up: ‘dord’ originated from a note by a chemistry consultant, intended to augment the entry for D abbreviations, including ‘density.’ A misinterpretation of the notation style led to the mistaken creation of ‘dord’ as a word.

The ‘dord’ incident underscores the importance of precision in editorial work. The error arose from a stylistic oversight: the chemist’s note “D or d, cont/ density” was misread due to a misplaced wavy line, which in editorial notation indicated boldface text. This led the typist, following the instructions as understood, to type ‘dord’ as a word. It’s a clear example of how even the most rigorous systems can falter, albeit rarely, under human error.

Commonly Misspelled Words

In the realm of English spelling, certain words consistently pose challenges. According to a report from WordTips dated 13 October 2022, “coolly” and “minuscule” rank as the most frequently misspelled words across major English-speaking countries like the U.S., UK, Canada, and Australia. These words exemplify the complexities and idiosyncrasies of English spelling, where double letters and unusual combinations often lead to errors.

The Last Word in The Dictionary: “Zyzzyva”

In the alphabetical order of English dictionaries, “Zyzzyva,” a genus of tropical weevils, holds a unique distinction: it’s often the last word listed. This term, with its peculiar spelling and the rarity of ‘z’ words in English, underscores the vast and varied nature of the English lexicon. The etymology of “Zyzzyva” is not entirely clear, but it’s believed to be inspired by “Zyzza,” a former genus of leafhoppers.

The Phenomenon of Wordnesia

Wordnesia is a curious brain glitch that affects our perception and spelling of even the simplest words. At times, familiar words can suddenly seem foreign or oddly spelled, a phenomenon that highlights the brain’s complex processing of language. While the exact neurological mechanisms behind wordnesia are not fully understood, it’s a testament to the intricate relationship between language, cognition, and perception.

A Nonexistent Word in a Renowned Dictionary

One of the most famous examples of a word being spelled wrong in a dictionary is the case of “dord.” This word appeared in the 1934 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary, defined as a term in physics and chemistry relating to density. However, ‘dord’ was a non-existent word, a typographical error that resulted from a misunderstanding of a notation on a card that read “D or d, cont/ density.” This incident showcases a rare but notable error in a major dictionary.

Historical Misinterpretations

While not as clear-cut as the ‘dord’ incident, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has had its share of controversies and errors, primarily due to historical misinterpretations or the evolution of language. For instance, early editions of the OED included words or meanings based on misreadings of older texts or rare usages that were later reconsidered. These instances highlight the challenging task of tracing the etymology and usage of words over centuries.

Modern Dictionary Updates and Corrections

Contemporary dictionaries, including online platforms, are regularly updated to correct any misspellings or inaccuracies. This ongoing process is a recognition of the dynamic nature of language and the need for constant vigilance in editorial practices. Errors that are identified in modern dictionaries are typically corrected in subsequent editions or online updates, reflecting the commitment to accuracy in lexicography.

The Impact of User-Generated Content

With the rise of user-generated content and digital platforms, the potential for misspelled words or inaccuracies in dictionary-like resources has increased. Websites that allow user contributions or lack rigorous editorial processes might occasionally contain errors. This phenomenon underscores the importance of relying on established, well-edited dictionaries for accurate spellings and definitions.

Dictionary Facts

  • The first dictionary of the English language was “A Table Alphabeticall,” compiled by Robert Cawdrey in 1604. It contained 2,500 words and their definitions, focusing primarily on hard words.
  • Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, published in 1755, was one of the first to include not just hard or unusual words but a wide range of everyday language. It took him nine years to complete.
  • Noah Webster, known for the famous Webster’s Dictionary, was not just a lexicographer but also a reformer. His dictionary introduced American English spellings like ‘color’ instead of ‘colour’ and ‘theater’ instead of ‘theatre.’
  • The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), first published in 1928, was initially a project that began in 1857 and took over 70 years to complete its first edition.
  • The OED is continuously updated, with revisions and new words added regularly. It has moved from a purely print format to an online platform to keep up with the dynamic nature of language.
  • The longest word in a major English dictionary is ‘pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis,’ a lung disease, included in the Oxford English Dictionary.
  • Unlike earlier dictionaries, which aimed to prescribe correct usage, the American Heritage Dictionary, first published in 1969, was among the first to take a descriptive approach, reflecting actual language use.
  • Modern dictionaries, like Merriam-Webster and the OED, now include slang and colloquial expressions, acknowledging their role in the evolving English language.
  • Throughout history, women have contributed significantly to dictionary making. For example, Emily Dickinson used Noah Webster’s 1844 dictionary, and her marginalia in it provide insights into her poetic language.
  • The world’s first known multilingual dictionary was compiled in ancient Sumer around 2300 BCE. It was a bilingual list of words in Sumerian and Akkadian.

The meticulous process of dictionary editing, coupled with the rare, human-induced errors like ‘dord’, highlights the complex interplay of art and science in lexicography. It’s a field where precision meets linguistic evolution, and where the rare slip-up serves as a reminder of the relentless pursuit of accuracy in the ever-expanding world of words.