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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) an assembly of ghosts

ghost under a sheet

Appropriately enough, the word phantomnation popped up on the HH Twitter feed on Halloween morning, defined as “a vast assembly of ghosts”:

And perhaps even more appropriately, phantomnation is quite literally a “ghost” word.

The term ghost word was coined by the etymologist and philologist Walter Skeat in 1886 to refer to what he colourfully described as, “words which have no real existence ... being mere coinages due to the blunders of printers or scribes, or to the perfervid imaginations of ignorant or blundering editors” Put another way, ghost words are words coined entirely by mistake.

The most famous example of a ghost word is dord, a word that made a questionable appearance in the 1934 edition of Webster’s Dictionary when an index card for the letter “D or d” was misfiled and wrongly interpreted as a word in its own right.

The card had been intended to explain that the uppercase letter D or lowercase d can be used as an abbreviation of the word density in certain scientific contexts. But instead, “D or d” was interpreted as a single word, dord, and given “density” as its definition—and just like that, a ghost word was born.

The error that gave rise to the word phantomnation isn’t quite so glaring as that that gave us dord, but it nevertheless led to the word finding its way into several major dictionaries despite its origins in an editor’s unwitting mistake.

The editor in question was Oxford scholar and classicist Richard Paul Jodrell, who published an exhaustive Philology of the English Language in 1820. In compiling his dictionary, Jodrell lifted several choice quotations from Alexander Pope’s 1726 translation of Homer’s Odyssey. But when it came to a line in Pope’s edition that spoke of “the phantome-nations of the dead”, Jodrell omitted the hyphen (as he was wont to do with hyphenated words) and unwittingly misinterpreted Pope’s phrase. Ultimately the single word phantomnation was added to Jodrell’s glossary, erroneously defined as “a multitude of spectres”.

Despite the oversight, from there the word was picked up by subsequent editors and lexicographers who added phantomnation to their dictionaries: in 1864, it even found its way into the unabridged edition of Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language, which not only defined the word as an “appearance as of a phantom” but credited its invention to Alexander Pope himself.

But by the turn of the century Jodrell’s error had been discovered. When phantomnation made its debut in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1982, it was rightly tagged as a “misinterpretation” that “probably arose from Jodrell's recording the expression in Pope as a solid [i.e. an unhyphenated word] in accordance with his characteristic method of writing compounds.”

By then, however, the damage had been done: perhaps the ghostliest ghost word in the dictionary had already found its place in the language.

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