The Logophile: A Rocky Word Quiz

  1. To widen the highway, the state procured land through
    1. eminent domain.
    2. imminent domain.
  2. From psephos, Greek for “pebbles,” we get psephology, the study of
    1. erosion.
    2. freckles.
    3. elections.
  3. Stanley likes zippers but not buttons, dumpsters but not dustbins, and yoyos but not boomerangs. What does Stanley like?


  1. a
  2. c
  3. Stanley likes words that were once trademarked brand names.

This article is featured in the September/October 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: FooTToo / Shutterstock

In a Word: Dord, the Word That Wasn’t

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

In a Word: Dancing ’Round the Bonfire

Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

Many revelers see a midweek Halloween as an opportunity to dress up and party for two weekends — before and after the holiday — instead of just one. Such autumnal parties are prime targets for large, open-air fires — what we know as bonfires. But what exactly is so bon about bonfires?

Samuel Johnson, in his 1755 dictionary, wrote that the word bonfire came from a combination of the French bon “good” and the English fire. His ideas are reflected in other European languages, too; in German, for example, a bonfire is a Freudenfeuer, and in French it’s a feu de joie — both mean “joyous fire.”

But according to Merriam-Webster’s etymologists, Johnson is probably wrong about where the word came from, and their arguments are solid: First, the hybrid combination of French bon and the word fire, which comes straight out of Old English, would have been unusual at the time. Second, considering bonfire’s age, if the bon came from French, we would have expected it to evolve into boonfire instead.

But perhaps the most convincing argument is that the earliest attestation of bonfire in English writing was spelled banefire. Bane is a spelling of bone that persisted in Scotland for centuries. Most likely, then, the original bonfires trace their name back midsummer Celtic rituals in which animal bones were burned to ward off evil spirits.

They were bone fires.

So if you find yourself at a Halloween bonfire this weekend, tossing some leftover chicken bones into the fire not only would be historically accurate, but it could help ward off those creatures of the night at the time of year they are most likely to pay you an unwanted visit.

What These 4 Words Reveal about Our Changing Language

You don’t have to be some sort of woke neoliberal technocrat to see how a slew of new words have entered the English language in your lifetime. That already massive unabridged dictionary is only getting larger as we gain new words. But less obvious — and far more interesting — is how we lose words.

Now, to say that we lose words isn’t entirely accurate. The English language doesn’t lose words — not really. Open to any page in an unabridged dictionary, and you’ll find not only words you’ve never heard before, but words you’re likely never to hear in a conversation — absume, hogling, whurl, words that are marked as either archaic or obsolete.

Why do so many useful and colorful words fall into obscurity while others flourish? The following four words illustrate some of the evolutionary forces that work upon our language.

Phlogiston: Science Moves On

In 1669, the German physician and alchemist J.J. Becher formulated what came to be known as the Phlogiston Theory to explain how things burned. The theory stated that all materials contain a substance called “combustible earth” — which later scientists renamed phlogiston — that is released during combustion. Wood, for example, was believed to be made up of ash and phlogiston, and when it burned, the phlogiston was released and the ash left behind.

As odd as this sounds today, it was the prevailing theory for more than a century. Scientists running tests based off this theory of combustion (later also applied to metal corrosion) made a number of advancements in chemistry, ultimately leading to the discovery, in 1774, of what English chemist Joseph Priestley called dephlogisticated air.

Thankfully, French chemist Antoine Lavoisier separately identified the element shortly after, and he gave it the name that stuck: oxygen.

The discovery of oxygen put an end to the Phlogiston Theory, as well as to the vocabulary that went along with it. Outside of historical contexts, we don’t get much call to use the word phlogiston in our daily lives anymore, much less dephlogisticated.

It’s happened before, and it will happen again: Words created to explain various scientific and philosophical theories disappear when the theories themselves are disproven through a better understanding of the world. Unless the vocabulary from these disproven theories finds new life in other disciplines (as, for instance, melancholic and sanguine did), they are liable to disappear from the common tongue, consigned to dwindling use in articles about historical oddities. (Like this one.)

Knocker-upper: Upgrading Your Tech

The crowing rooster waking the farm family at the crack of dawn has been a cliché for centuries. It also happens to be true. But as the industrial revolution took off, people left the farm and packed into cities, and they didn’t bring their roosters with them. Before the invention of the adjustable mechanical alarm clock in 1847, and long before the invention of the wake-up call, people needed some other way to make sure they got up in time for work.

Enter the knocker-uppers (also called knocker-ups).

Clients hired a knocker-upper to come to their home at a certain hour and tap on the bedroom window, usually using a long pole with a knob attached to the top, until they woke up. Affordable alarm clocks and the proliferation of electricity ultimately ended knocker-upping as a viable profession — and took the word knocker-upper with it — though the job did survive well into the 20th century.

Although we readily accept the idea that the forward march of technology renders old equipment obsolete, rarely do we stop to think about the vocabulary that we lose along with it. And that’s a long list of lost words, including some beauts like arquebus (a precursor to the musket); rarebrace, poleyn, and vambrace (parts of a suit of armor); and chatelaine (a sort of tool belt for a head housekeeper).

In a few generations — or perhaps just a few years — historians and logophiles may be explaining the obsolete words beeper, modem, and dot-matrix.

Mulatto: Social Pressures on Language

During the centuries that the enslavement of black Africans was considered an acceptable and profitable enterprise, the white European and American men in power developed their own vocabulary to simplify their ability to write oppression into law. Some localities developed complex hierarchal racial classification systems based on how much one’s “pure” blood was “diluted” by races considered inferior.

And that’s where the word mulatto — a person with one white and one black parent — comes from. And it didn’t stop there. The powers that be established a wide lexicon to label people with a mixed-race background, including the words mestizo, griffe, quadroon, and octaroon, this last used to describe a person with one great-grandparent of color.

Sometimes, social and political pressures act deliberately to remove words from the common tongue. The fact that some of these words have effectively disappeared is proof that language obsolescence isn’t always a bad thing.

Today, we’re seeing the same type of downward pressure on the word niggardly and its even more dysphonic noun form niggard. Originally a neutral word meaning “stingy,” niggardly has, after several high-profile incidents involving lawsuits and resignations, become a dog whistle for racists, providing a thin veil of plausible deniability with appeals to etymology. (We see the same with the word uppity.)

Instead of using niggardly, writers are encouraged to reach for a synonym: miserly, tight-fisted, penurious, stingy, and Malthusian could all fit the bill.

Nice: Don’t Be Silly

Santa Claus’ naughty and nice lists were quite different 700 years ago. When nice entered the language in the late 13th century, it meant “foolish” or “stupid.” It’s derived from the Latin nescius, literally “not-knowing.” In the late 1300s, the meaning shifted to indicate a person or actions considered excessively luxurious and then, by 1400, to denote someone who was finely arrayed, shy, or reserved, or something that was precise (as in the phrase “nice and slow”).

By the 1500s, nice was a word used to describe polite society — without any subtext of ignorance or foolishness. And the meaning of nice continued to shift with such rapidity through the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries that the writer’s intended meaning for the word was not always clear.

Naughty, too, has seen a great change. It was originally an adjective meaning “poor” or “needy.” It described someone who had naught — nothing.

In the evolution of a language, sometimes the words remain but the meaning of the word changes, and it has happened more often than you might think: A computer used to be a person who did calculations. Girl used to describe a child of any gender. In the 16th century, bully was a gender-neutral term of endearment.