In 1631, a new printing of the Bible contained an egregious mistake. At Exodus 20:14, the Sixth Commandment read, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Roughly 1,000 of these so-called Wicked Bibles were printed before that missing not was discovered and the printing halted. For some, the existence of the Wicked Bible is a laughable reminder of our fallibility; to others, it’s a disturbing example of how even the most sacred things are not immune to humankind’s imperfections.
There are certain resources that are the secular equivalent of sacred, too. We turn to them for authoritative guidance in our personal and professional lives, rarely questioning the wisdom they hold. Psychiatrists, for example, have the DSM. Congress has the U.S. Code. And frantic, procrastinating middle school students have Wikipedia. For copy editors and proofreaders, the dictionary is such an authoritative resource — a editorial sacred text if ever there was one. Yet it, too, can be subject to human error.
Consider the entry for dord.
In the early 1930s, the editors at G. & C. Merriam Company (now Merriam-Webster, Inc.) were working hard to produce a new unabridged dictionary. One change from the previous edition that was being implemented was the transfer of abbreviation entries from the main part of the dictionary to a separate section immediately following the entries under Z.
A chemistry consultant doing work for the dictionary submitted a handwritten index card — that’s how definitions cycled through the workflow back then — dated July 31, 1931, with an entry for “D or d.” What the consultant was trying to indicate was that either an uppercase D or a lowercase d could be used as an abbreviation for density in physics and chemistry.
Somehow, this card didn’t make it into the stack destined for the new Abbreviations section, but ended up being filed with the unabbreviated words. Furthermore, those spaces around or looked different to the editors than they do to us: Space was routinely added between letters on cards like these to allow room for stress marks and syllable breaks. So to the lexicographer who examined this card, it seemed the consultant had inadvertently omitted the space between the o and the r in the entry for Dord.
So Dord (“corrected” to the lowercase dord to follow house style) made it past the definer, was given a pronunciation, somehow escaped notice of the etymologist, and went unquestioned by the proofreader. When Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition (called W2 for short) was published in 1934, it contained an entry for dord — a “ghost word” that wasn’t really a word — between Dorcopsis and doré.
The error was discovered in 1939, but somehow wasn’t actually corrected in print until 1947.
When the missing not in the Wicked Bible came to light, the men who printed it — Robert Barker and Martin Lucas — were brought to court, fined heavily, and had their printing licenses revoked. King Charles I had even wanted them executed. What copies of the Wicked Bible authorities could get their hands on were incinerated, making them extremely rare today.
The makers of W2 got off easy by comparison. G. & C. Merriam Company wasn’t dragged before some tribunal, and copies of the erroneous dictionary — more than a dozen years’ worth — weren’t rounded up and burned. They aren’t rare, but to dictionary aficionados, they are collector’s items that serve as a constant reminder that nothing is beyond the reach of human error.
Featured image credit: Andy Hollandbeck
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