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Finding words

By Richard W. Bailey

A pair of golden jackals, not presently crying out a pheal.

A pair of golden jackals, not presently crying out a pheal.


When I was a sophomore, a hallmate told me his shabby old dictionary was superior to mine because it contained the word pheal. Sure enough; his did, mine didn’t.

In those days, finding a word meant looking it up in the dictionary, and if one dictionary didn’t have it you could always look in a different one, perhaps one bigger or more specialized. But pheal wasn’t in my dictionary, nor was it in the bigger “unabridged” parent that stood on a lectern in the library.

Nowadays, we have Wikipedia, and sure enough pheal shows up there with exactly the definition given in my friend’s dictionary (the alarm call of a golden jackal).

In November, I challenged readers to define an English word that hadn’t been in use for a thousand years: frumberdling. Turns out to have been duck soup for many readers.

So the question is: Do any mysteries remain? Are there legitimate words you can’t find on the Internet or in a dictionary?

I thought of mondegreen, a category of verbal blunders, but I find that Merriam-Webster, ever alert to innovations, has a section inviting readers to send in examples of mondegreens they think are interesting.

Then I thought of dord. That’s there too. Dord is famous as a ghost word in the Merriam-Webster Third New International in 1961. A ghost word is one that appears only in dictionaries and is not in actual usage. With dord, the entry should have read “D or d,” defined as “density.” The idea was that “D” or “d” (either upper or lower case) could be an abbreviation for density.

The trouble was that the Merriam Webster Dictionary of 1961 embraced the unusual practice of using lower case for all entry words, producing such anomalies as “god: usu. cap.” To follow that policy, “D or d” first turned into “d or d,” and then another copy editor eliminated the spaces to produce “dord.”

Things once hard to find are now easy. Take bumdockdousse, a 17-century rough-housing game. Before the days of specialized play, rules, and umpires, English-speaking people played more unstructured games: throwing stones at chickens was one popular sport. In the same class of games was bumdockdousse—essentially “butt-kicking”—and you can learn all about it from the Internet. (In French, we learn from Randall Cotgrave’s French-English dictionary of 1610, it was called pimpompet, and, in my very unscientific survey of modern French, the names for the games are equally obsolete in both languages.)

So are all the words on the Internet? Pret’ near.

Or at least that’s true for the public part of the Internet. Yet there is a huge body of words that are used by counter-intelligence and security agencies that are hidden from us, at least until the secrets are revealed. Abscam, Unabom, and OKBOMB are examples of linguistic creativity within the FBI. These, along with Cointelpro, and many others are blends and acronyms, sometimes both. You may seek these words but you may not find them before they are made public.

What about you? Do you have a favorite obscure word? Do you know words that can’t be found online? Share them in the comments section below.

Richard W. Bailey

Richard W. Bailey

RICHARD BAILEY was professor emeritus of English language and literature at the University of Michigan. His last major publication (co-edited with Colette Moore and Marilyn Miller) was an edition of a chronicle of daily life in London written by a merchant in the middle of the 16th century. This electronic book incorporates images of the manuscript, a transcript of the writing it contains, and a modernization of the text for easy reading. Professor Bailey passed away in 2011.