Keeping alumni and friends connected to U-M

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.


  • Paul Carson

    Words too new to be in common usage, even on the internet. E.g., BLUCI – Breast Light and Ultrasound Imaging system. So new most in our group developing the system can’t even remember the name despite its multifaceted appeal.


  • Jenny McKillop - 1994

    How about very local words? Many years ago, a little boy in Ann Arbor coined the cuss “godgit” [gah-jit] , and at least 20 people I know use the term to avoid using a harsher swear word. It can’t be on the internet. (Although now that I’ve posted here, it will be!)


  • R.E.P. - 1960, 64

    Surely the “dord” story must be apocryphal. It wouldn’t have taken much thought to list the definition as “d or D”. Even Merriam-Webster editors can’t be that lazy.


  • John Biderman - MA 1981

    Ah, mondegreens! I’m so glad finally to find a word for them. My ex first thought “for all intents and purposes” was “for all intensive purposes.” In my youth, I always wondered schoolday mornings about “widgistans,” as in “and to the republic for widgistans…” Nor was I sure what “tavese” was, from “They fly through the air with the gradest tavese…” My life has been full of mondegreens, and now I finally know what to call them. Thank you Professor Bailey.

    Now, what is the word for those things you’ve only read and never heard pronounced, and thus carry the wrong assumed pronunciation around in your head? For example, reading “albeit” and thinking it is said “all bite.” Or “chameleon” and, well, not knowing what to think but attempting something like “sham-a-le-on.” There must be a word for these phonetic misapprehensions, besides ignorance.


    • Dave Rutkowski - 1964, 1966

      Your ex wasn’t the only one. It never made any sense until someone with great diction used the phrase.

      Reminds me of a HS friend who didn’t quite appreciate the song Poetry in Motion, thinking it was Oh, a Tree in Motion,


  • Peter Bleby - 1977

    HI Richard: Do you have any info on the origin of “Mondegreen?


  • Peter Bedrick - 1965

    How about those weird words found only in the Anagram site “dictionaries” that my wife uses while playing Scrabble with her friends on Facebook?….the game takes words like neume, fid, parvos, azlon, haika, and the ever popular ohing as perfectly acceptable English vocabulary. I haven’t used many of these lately.


  • Christopher Lumpkin - 1998

    New words are created, used and assimilated everyday by the post-internet generations. The difference between pre-internet/twitter/facebook coinage and today is that today, those and other social mediums are usually the tool by which the coinage is created and perpetrated.

    Somewhere around age 10 or 12, my friends and I started calling each other bimbo which we immediately shortened to bim. Bim morphed into a friendly, oft-used greeting and moniker between us for a number of summers and it had no distinct meaning or pointed reference. Eventually, we outgrew the word and bim became relegated to our childhood pasts.

    I searched the internet and found that the word bim is listed in the Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions by Richard A. Spears, Fourth Edition. So now I’m convinced that everything is on the internet! lol.

    On a very closely related topic, someone else commented on the acronym BLUCI being a new word. The proliferation of acronyms has increased many-fold to keep pace with complex technology and the speed of it. I think this begs the question – when does an acronym become a word? Has anyone studied this aspect of our language? If not, I propose the military as a great starting point.


  • J ohn Woodford

    Nice. Like those game word; they open opportunity for sport writers.
    Should be \”Cointelpro\” for the FBI machinations, however.

    Thanks for the catch, John. We fixed the spelling. –Editor


  • Jane Zimmerman - 1962

    I remember “pret’ near”. I think I was enrolled at UM when I realized it was not a “real” word. My boyfriend at the time used “copesthetic,” which he claimed came from the jazz world. Fun to remember!


  • Mark O'Brien

    My grandfather (in upstate NY) used pret’ near quite a bit. I also learned some other interesting colloquialisms from him, as he was a carpenter.


  • Michael Klossner - 1969

    I remember that near the end of his novel Men Like Gods H.G. Wells used the word “sham-pious.” I confirmed this by going to the Wikipedia article on the novel, which has a link to the Guttenburg Project text of the novel. It’s quite near the end and would have been on one of the last couple pages of the book. The word means, of course, a false display of religion. I always remembered it as one word “shampius” which I thought should be pronounced with the second syllable “pea” not “pie.” It is not in wiktionary and does not come up in google or bing. I guess it’s a sugested word by an author, which didn’t catch on.


  • John Jablonski - 1969

    Professor Bailey helped me publish an article about the great lexicographer and Father of American Studies in Hungary, Lászlo Országh, during socialist times. When Országh was making his four-volume “English-Hungarian, Hungarian-English Dictionary,” he was aware that Socialist censors would read dictionary entries vertically as well as horizontally. So, puzzled by the unfortunate fact that “bolond,” (“stupid”) preceded “Bolsevik” (no translation necessary), he had to find a word to come between the “stupid” and “Bolsevik.” Országh found “bolonyik,” which is an “umbelliferoue water plant.” Professor Bailey helped me understand that words really do matter.


  • Bill Oliver - 1989

    My word is “boozoo” – the reflection made on a wall or ceiling by the glint of sunlight off a watch face or piece of sliverware. I didn’t realize until I was a student at U of M, and safely away from the influence of my family, that this was a word my parents coined when asked about it by their inquistive child. For 18 years, I had no idea it was a word you wouldn’t find in a dictionary.


  • Jim Beck - 1961

    According to Google’s collection of books in “Google Ngram Viewer”, Dord and dord have been in usage since at least 1800 while bumdockdousse does not come up in any of their books since 1800. Pret’ near seems to start around 1904 and fuggedaboutit (my favorite mondegreen) started around 1993.


  • Tom Gross - '68e, MS'75

    I note that Mr. Lumpkin is helping change the meaning of words before our very eyes. To “beg the question ” is losing its original meaning as we collectively ascribe a different meaning.


  • Susan Klaas - 1964

    I thought a mondegreen was when one phrase was substituted for the original, such as “for all intensive purposes” substituted for “for all intents and purposes” .