Wait—did you just make up a word?

Every week, or at least as closely as I can make it, I head out to a local restaurant where the waitress knows my order as soon as I walk in. I slide into the back room and take my place at a long table where, along with several other writers, I engage in the painful but necessary process of critique.

For nearly six years I’ve been subjecting my work, five or so pages at a time, to the scrutinizing eyes of more or less the same collection of critical readers.

We know each other well enough by now that the sting of harsh criticism isn’t too painful and any heaped-on praise is usually genuine. We each know the unique voices and styles of the others, share a great deal of respect for one another’s work, and have all become more skilled throughout our time together.

We’ve got a good thing going.

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A writer looking for just the right word.

My fellow critique partners focus on both the big stuff and the small details, asking me the tough questions about story structure and character development, as well as calling me out for awkward phrasing, run-on sentences that include fifty-eight overly sentimental words, use of ridiculous adverbs indiscriminately, exceptionally long lists, or for starting sentences with “but or “and.”

But they know that when it’s their turn to share, I will ask the tough questions too, like, “Wait—did you just make up a word?”

This very situation came up a couple of weeks ago. The writer (who shall remain nameless) smiled and explained that he did not just make it up, because it actually appears in previous works of his as well. I let it slide because the word (zorch) somehow fit the context remarkably well. And sometimes the word we need just doesn’t exist in the dictionary.

Other times, words that wind up in the dictionary are ones we don’t need. That’s what happened in second edition of Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary in 1934. The story goes that in July of 1931, chemistry editor Austin M. Patterson made a note that the word density should be included on the list of words that could be represented by the abbreviations D or d.

Somehow the note got misplaced and ended up directed incorrectly to the printer. Before long, a curious word nerd could find, tucked into the Ds between Dorcopsis and doré, the word Dord, complete with a pronunciation guide and a definition suggesting that it was a synonym for density.

dictionary
So many words. photo credit: Merriam-Webster Inc. MW_Bookshelf_Unabridged_Vintage via photopin (license)

No one caught the problem until a word nerd extraordinaire and editor for Merriam-Webster noticed, almost eight years later, that Dord didn’t have an etymology. The resulting investigation resulted in the removal of the ghost word by 1940, but for almost ten years Dord was a perfectly good word.

And why shouldn’t it have been? English is, after all, a dynamic language. In recent years, English language dictionaries have added, on average, more than one thousand new words each year. So far, Dord hasn’t been one of them. Neither has zorch.

I am, however, pleased that the online Urban Dictionary includes three definitions for Merriam-Webster’s most famous not-a-word. The first states that it is a mistaken synonym for density. The third defines it as “a word that is incorrectly used or does not technically exist . . .” My favorite part about this definition is the clever accompanying sentence: “Urban Dictionary is not a place to learn, it’s just a load of dords.”

I’m sure my critique partners would be quick to point out that the previous sentence is a comma splice, but what matters more is the second definition, which uses dord as an adjective for describing something as literally dense. I suggest this should be taken one step further and used figuratively. For example, I might say to a fellow writer: “You must be pretty dord to try to use the word zorch.”

I think I’ll roll this out and see if it sticks. Maybe it’ll become one of Merriam-Webster’s thousand or so new words in its next edition.

What words do you wish existed?

10 thoughts on “Wait—did you just make up a word?

  1. I used the word “scraggled” in a play. No one questioned it, and I still don’t really know what it means: “A scraggled bird come home to roost”.

    Good Dord! And what’s wrong with starting a sentence with “and”?!! Zorch!

    1. I’m okay with a scraggled bird. I’m not sure that, strictly grammatically speaking, you are supposed to start a sentence with “and.” I exercise the rule of thumb that an author who is capable of competently following a rule is a allowed to break it if it makes sense stylistically. And also, you know, just cuz she feels like it.

      1. Breaking the rules – one advantage at least of being long in the tooth. I used to tell my music composition students that when learning to drive you don’t start with How to overtake.

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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