I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Sunday, January 23, 2005

Ghost Words

I have just stumbled across the concept of "ghost words." There are two definitions I've found floating around on the internet. The first, most common definition of a ghost word is of a word that is found in a dictionary as a result of a mistake, persisting for many years and many different editions as dictionary editors copy from one another. The example I found on Snopes.com was the strange history of the word "dord." Dord appeared for a while in Websters with the definition of "density." Of course, no one has ever used to word "dord" to mean density, or to mean anything else, for that matter. The word slipped in as a mistaken reading of a note card. In scientific equations, density is sometimes represented as "d" or "D." So, the compilers had a note card that read, "D or d / density." A little sloppy handwriting, some shoddy proofreading, and poof, a new word was born, a word never spoken or written.

A second use of ghost word refers to the word roots that are common in our language, words that only exist when they are modified. For instance, we can retain, detain, attain, and contain, but tain by itself is meaningless. Some people are ruthless, some are feckless, but nobody ever possesses the presumably noble qualities of "ruth" or "feck." Since feckless means weak or ineffective, I deduce (reduce, conduce) that feck would mean strong. So, right-wingers might proudly proclaim, "Since George Bush became President, America has been fecked like it's never been fecked before." Lovely. I'm certain there's an actual dictionary term for these root words other than "ghost words," but my BA in English is twenty years old at this point, and the warranty has expired.

I find the concept of ghost words to be haunting, especially in regards to the first definition. The idea of an unwanted and unneeded word stirs something in my writer's soul. What a sad and lonely fate for a word, to sprout briefly in the forest of words, only to be plowed back under. I plan to keep my eyes wide open for them now, in hopes that I might find and nurture one into full flower.

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