How to make a dictionary of made up words

Author and software engineer Thomas Dimson has created an AI dictionary that generates fake words and definitions. The project, like many similar ones released online recently, uses sophisticated AI language processing algorithms. And the words the cutting-edge AI generates are, of course, hilarious.

Introducing "this word does not exist" today – AI generated English words with dictionary definitions. Be kind!

— Thomas Dimson (@turtlesoupy) May 13, 2020

Dimson released his word maker, dubbed Pamela Chen, and Ryan O’ Rourke—who’s presumably a software engineer at Facebook—for help with the project.

How to make a dictionary of made up words

a language modeling AI that’s been “trained” on a dataset of more than 8 million web pages. In other words, GPT-2 is a series of neural networks that can generate readable text thanks to the fact that it was fed lots of real text, through which it could identify, and duplicate, language patterns.

How to make a dictionary of made up words

made-up words, which can then be used as jumping-off points for definitions. Each new word and definition even comes with a very plausible usage case.

A video breakdown of how GPT-2 works.

Looking forward, it’s safe to say there are going to be a lot more text generating tools like this one coming online. The GPT-2 source code is enormously powerful, and enormously popular, and it’s evolving at a frighteningly fast clip. Manipulated versions of the language generator have, for example, been great at nailing random tasks like coming up with new candy heart sayings, or even April Fools’ jokes. Which means folks should get used to this kind of “intelligentbot” hanging around long into the future.

This is one of the questions Merriam-Webster editors are most often asked.

The answer is simple: usage.

Tracking Word Usage

To decide which words to include in the dictionary and to determine what they mean, Merriam-Webster editors study the language as it’s used. They carefully monitor which words people use most often and how they use them.

Each day most Merriam-Webster editors devote an hour or two to reading a cross section of published material, including books, newspapers, magazines, and electronic publications; in our office this activity is called “reading and marking.” The editors scour the texts in search of new words, new usages of existing words, variant spellings, and inflected forms–in short, anything that might help in deciding if a word belongs in the dictionary, understanding what it means, and determining typical usage. Any word of interest is marked, along with surrounding context that offers insight into its form and use.


The marked passages are then input into a computer system and stored both in machine-readable form and on 3″ x 5″ slips of paper to create citations.

Each citation has the following elements:

  1. the word itself
  2. an example of the word used in context
  3. bibliographic information about the source from which the word and example were taken

Merriam-Webster’s citation files, which were begun in the 1880s, now contain 15.7 million examples of words used in context and cover all aspects of the English vocabulary. Citations are also available to editors in a searchable text database (linguists call it a corpus) that includes more than 70 million words drawn from a great variety of sources.

From Citation to Entry

How does a word make the jump from the citation file to the dictionary?

The process begins with dictionary editors reviewing groups of citations. Definers start by looking at citations covering a relatively small segment of the alphabet – for example gri- to gro- – along with the entries from the dictionary being reedited that are included within that alphabetical section. It is the definer’s job to determine which existing entries can remain essentially unchanged, which entries need to be revised, which entries can be dropped, and which new entries should be added. In each case, the definer decides on the best course of action by reading through the citations and using the evidence in them to adjust entries or create new ones.

Before a new word can be added to the dictionary, it must have enough citations to show that it is widely used. But having a lot of citations is not enough; in fact, a large number of citations might even make a word more difficult to define, because many citations show too little about the meaning of a word to be helpful. A word may be rejected for entry into a general dictionary if all of its citations come from a single source or if they are all from highly specialized publications that reflect the jargon of experts within a single field.

To be included in a Merriam-Webster dictionary, a word must be used in a substantial number of citations that come from a wide range of publications over a considerable period of time. Specifically, the word must have enough citations to allow accurate judgments about its establishment, currency, and meaning.

The number and range of citations needed to add a word to the dictionary varies. In rare cases, a word jumps onto the scene and is both instantly prevalent and likely to last, as was the case in the 1980s with AIDS. In such a situation, the editors determine that the word has become firmly established in a relatively short time and should be entered in the dictionary, even though its citations may not span the wide range of years exhibited by other words.

Size Does Matter

The size and type of dictionary also affects how many citations a word needs to gain admission. Because an abridged dictionary, such as Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate® Dictionary, has fairly limited space, only the most commonly used words can be entered; to get into that type of dictionary, a word must be supported by a significant number of citations. But a large unabridged dictionary, such as Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, has room for many more words, so terms with fewer citations can still be included.

Authority Without Authoritarianism

Change and variation are as natural in language as they are in other areas of human life and Merriam-Webster reference works must reflect that fact. By relying on citational evidence, we hope to keep our publications grounded in the details of current usage so they can calmly and dispassionately offer information about modern English. That way, our references can speak with authority without being authoritarian.

How to make a dictionary of made up words It’s finally here. 12 years in the making, 300 pages, 70% new material, including longer video-like definitions, otherworldly illustrations, and some thoughts on language and the meaning of life.

Coming November 16, 2021 from Simon & Schuster.

The Author

John Koenig is a video maker, graphic designer, and voiceover artist from Minnesota, who lives in Minneapolis with his wife and daughter. His work has been acclaimed by New York Magazine, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, and the guys from Radiolab.

Feel free to write me directly and describe an emotion you need a word for:

The YouTube Series

Written, edited, coined and narrated by John Koenig.


I never imagined this was possible, but “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” is now a New York Times bestseller! There are no words for how grateful I feel, knowing that I’m not alone. If you’re thinking of gifts for anyone you know who’s creative, thoughtful, or going through confusing times, you might want to order them a copy now:

  • Posted 4 months ago
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n. curiosity about the impact you’ve had on the lives of the people you know, wondering which of your harmless actions or long-forgotten words might have altered the plot of their stories in ways you’ll never get to see.

“The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” is available in hardcover, with hundreds of new definitions:

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  • by dictionaryofobscuresorrows

Anonymous asked:

CONGRATS for the publication of the book !! I’m so glad this is finally happening ! I just have one question : how is are the contents organized ? Is it like a normal dictionary with entries in alphabetical order, or in order of creation like this tumblr, or something else entirely ?

Good question! The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is divided into six chapters, with definitions grouped according to theme:

1. Between Living and Dreaming (about worldview and desire)
2. The Interior Wilderness (selfhood and identity)
3. Montage of Attractions (relationships and intimacy)
4. Faces in a Crowd (society and alienation)
5. Boats Against the Current (time and memory)
6. Roll the Bones (uncertainty and chaos)

There’s also a postscript section called “After Words,” with some commentary on language and meaning, and what this project has meant to me personally.

The definitions are arranged in no particular order, with an emphasis on variety and unpredictability. Which feels fairly true to life, given the way your moods tend to drift through your mind like the weather.

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This project started here on Tumblr more than 10 years ago. To all my followers, I can’t thank you all enough for sticking with me through all these years. Because of your support, I’m proud to announce the book is finally here.

As of TODAY, “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” is now available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and your local bookstore. It’s a dictionary of made-up words for emotions that we all feel but don’t have the words to express, filled with new definitions, illustrations, etymologies and essays that seek to capture the forgotten corners of the human condition.

  • Posted 4 months ago
  • by dictionaryofobscuresorrows


n. the feeling of emptiness after a long and arduous process is finally complete—having finished school, recovered from surgery, or gone home at the end of your wedding—which leaves you relieved that it’s over but missing the stress that organized your life into a mission.

Pre-order your copy of “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” from Simon & Schuster:

  • Posted 4 months ago
  • by dictionaryofobscuresorrows

PRE-ORDER your copy of “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” here, from Simon & Schuster: (click on any of the links on the right)

I think about this feeling a lot. Driving past your childhood home to show it to a friend, or pointing at a picture of a loved one you lost, only to realize that to them it’s just another house, just another face.

Etymology: Aulasy is a contraction of auld lang syne, which is Scots for “times long past”—fragments of which are still present in aulasy, but the meaning has been lost.

  • Posted 5 months ago
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Pre-order your copy of “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” from Simon & Schuster:

“Of course, you’d like to think you’ve got a clear view of the broader social landscape—but it’s possible you don’t have a clue. There are so many backstories that people keep to themselves, so many side conversations you don’t even know exist. Some of your friends are vastly different people when they’re one-on-one with each other, such that both would seem unrecognizable. Even now an unexpected pair of them might be helping each other through a crisis, or carrying on a silent feud, or having a fling that you won’t hear about until years later. But even if everything was open and honest, you’d still have to confront the ever-shifting labyrinth of interconnected relationships and personas and levels of intimacy you could scarcely even begin to fathom.”

Dictionaries can be really helpful when you are reading because they help you find out the meaning of words you don’t know. However, using a dictionary too much can cause problems with your reading skills.

To read comfortably, it’s important to be able to guess the meaning of unknown words using the other words around it to help you. We call this guessing from context. This is important because it helps you read faster and gives you the skills you need to read in English when you don’t have a dictionary available.

What happens if you are really not sure of the meaning of a word, though? What about if you guess the wrong meaning and start using the word incorrectly?

Here’s a way to practice reading and guessing from context, then using your dictionary to make sure you are correct.

Step one: Find a text to practice with

Choose something that’s a manageable length. A news or magazine article is usually a good length for this. If you want to use a book, just choose a page or two to start with.

Step two: Read it as fast as you can

Read through the article and try to understand the general idea or ‘get the gist’ of the article. Don’t worry about the details at this point; we’ll have plenty of time for that later. This is useful because if you read in too much detail to start with, you might get stuck on something that is actually explained later in the text.

Step three: Read it in more detail

Now you know the structure of the text and a little about the information in it, you are ready to read it in a bit more detail. Read each paragraph and make sure you understand the main point of it. If you are having trouble with a particular word, underline it but don’t stop reading – something later in the paragraph might help you understand what it means.

Step four: Look at the tricky words again

Look back at the words you underlined and try to guess what they mean. Now you are familiar with the text, it should be a lot easier and you will find that you can actually guess a lot of them. If you are having trouble, try thinking of other words or expressions you could exchange for the tricky words, they might be synonyms (mean the same).

Step five: Dictionary time!

OK, now it’s time to get your dictionary out. Go back over the tricky words and check your guesses were right. If not, make a note of the correct meaning of the words. Make a note of the new words and save them for later.

Step six: Read it again

Now you know what all the words and expressions in the text mean, read it one last time to help you remember the sentences in which you saw the new words. Remembering how the words were used is as important as the meanings themselves, because it will help you to use them correctly in the future.

Remember: you don’t need to read like this all the time. It takes a long time and would not be practical in an exam or if you need to read a long book quickly. You can use the same idea in everyday reading, though. Just read it twice rather than four times, and remember – always have a go at guessing the word before you use your dictionary.

And these are your tips for today. Now, you just need to practice your English to write like a native speaker. See you!

Dictionaries reward you for paying attention, both to the things you consume and to your own curiosity.

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How to make a dictionary of made up words

By Rachel del Valle

I can’t remember how old I was when I first learned the words denotation (the definition of a word) and connotation (the suggestion of a word). But I do remember feeling a little betrayed by the idea that there was a whole layer of language that couldn’t quite be conveyed through a dictionary. Like most young people, I enjoyed learning but thought of it as something I would eventually be done with. At some age, I assumed, I would need to know everything. Understanding the nuances of language seemed like an obstacle to that goal.

It wasn’t until after I graduated from college, and subsequently realized that there’s no such thing as all-encompassing knowledge, that I was able to read for pleasure. A sense of curiosity, rather than desperate completism, steered me. I started to see dictionaries, inexact as they are, as field guides to the life of language. Looking up words encountered in the wild felt less like a failing than like an admission that there are lots of things I don’t know and an opportunity to discover just how many.

I prize my 1954 copy of Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition, which I picked up on the street near my apartment in Brooklyn a few years ago. Its 3,000 pages (India paper, with a marbled fore edge) are punctuated by a thumb index. I keep it open, solitary on a tabletop, the way dictionaries are usually found in libraries. I often consult it during evening games of Scrabble or midday magazine-reading. I mostly read novels at night, in bed, so when I come across unfamiliar words, I dog-ear the bottom of the page, then look words up in spurts. When I start encountering these words, newly resplendent to my pattern-seeking mind, in articles, podcasts, other books and even the occasional conversation, the linguistic universe seems to shrink to the size of a small town. Dictionaries heighten my senses, almost like certain mind-altering substances: They direct my attention outward, into a conversation with language. They make me wonder what other things I’m blind to because I haven’t taught myself to notice them yet. Recently spotted specimens include orrery, “a mechanical model, usually clockwork, devised to represent the motions of the earth and moon (and sometimes also the planets) around the sun.” The Oxford English Dictionary also tells me that the word comes from the fourth Earl of Orrery, for whom a copy of the first machine was made, around 1700. Useful? Obviously not. Satisfying? Deeply.

With dictionaries, unknown words become solvable mysteries. Why leave them up to guesswork?

Wikipedia and Google answer questions with more questions, opening up pages of information you never asked for. But a dictionary builds on common knowledge, using simple words to explain more complex ones. Using one feels like prying open an oyster rather than falling down a rabbit hole. Unknown words become solvable mysteries. Why leave them up to guesswork? Why not consult a dictionary and feel the instant gratification of pairing context with a definition? Dictionaries reward you for paying attention, both to the things you consume and to your own curiosity. They are a portal into the kind of irrational, childish urge to just know things that I had before learning became a duty instead of a game. I’m most amused by words that absolutely do not mean what I thought they meant. Like cygnet. Which has nothing to do with rings or stationery. (It’s a young swan.)

There are, of course, many different kinds of dictionaries. The way they’ve proliferated over time is a reminder of just how futile it is to approach language as something that can be fully understood and contained. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, defined a paltry 40,000 words. The original O.E.D., proposed by the Philological Society of London in 1857 and completed more than 70 years later, contained over 400,000 entries. The Merriam-​Webster universe is a direct descendant of Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828. Compiled by Webster alone over the course of more than 20 years, it contained 70,000 words, nearly a fifth of which had never been defined before. Webster, who corresponded with founding fathers like Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, saw lexicography as an act of patriotism. He believed that establishing American standards of spelling and definition was necessary to solidify the young nation’s cultural identity as separate from that of England.

Perhaps because of Webster’s enthusiasm for rules, dictionaries have long had an unfair reputation as arbiters of language, as tools used to limit rather expand your range of expression. But dictionaries don’t create language — people do. Take dilettante: The superficial connotation of the word is a modern invention. Noah Webster’s aforementioned American Dictionary defines it as “one who delights in promoting science or the fine arts.” The O.E.D. cites its connection to the Latin verb delectare, meaning “to delight or please.” To be a dilettante once meant that love and curiosity drove your interest in a given discipline. For me, dictionaries are a portal into that kind of uncalculated knowledge-seeking. They remind me that, when it comes to learning, indulging your curiosity is just as important as paying attention. After all, isn’t curiosity really just another form of attention? Following your curiosity instead of swatting it away is one of the best ways I know to feel connected to more than what’s right in front of you.

Rachel del Valle is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in GQ and Real Life Magazine.

D o not be afraid to make up your own words. English teachers, dictionary publishers and that uptight guy two cubicles over who always complains about the microwave being dirty, they will all tell you that you can’t. They will bring out the dictionary and show you that the word isn’t there – therefore it doesn’t exist. Don’t fall for this. The people who love dictionaries like to present these massive tomes as an unquestionable authority, just slightly less than holy. But they’re not. A dictionary is just a book, a product, no different from Fifty Shades of Grey and only slightly better written. But you must be careful. Every new word must be crafted. It has to have a purpose, a need. A new word cannot be created with a fisted bash to a keyboard. Like every other word in the language, your new word should be a mashup of pre-existing words. You can steal bits from Latin and German, like everybody else did. Or you can use contemporary English in a new way. But you must capture something that already exists, which for whatever reason has been linguistically mismanaged. Here is an example:

Blursing noun When an event, gift, or circumstance presents qualities and consequences that are simultaneously positive and negative: Jenny was made partner but it was a blursing because her hours were so long that her husband left her.

Why not just say “curse and blessing”? Well, for one thing that is cumbersome. But more importantly, something that is both a curse and a blessing is different from a blursing. With a blursing the two qualities are indivisibly linked, and cannot be separated. There is no chance to dodge the curse and receive only the blessing. Tell me you haven’t received a blursing. It is a situation we have all experienced, but for whatever reason have never had a word to properly describe it. Same with the next two words:

Cidiot noun Someone who has spent so long in a city they have lost the ability to perform tasks the rural population sees as outrageous common sense: First, he didn’t slow down when it started to snow, then he turned away from the skid, not into it, and I had to tow him out of the ditch – what a cidiot!

Oprahcide verb To acquiesce to the theories of an expert, instead of trusting your own thoughts, opinions and personal experience: Billy is two, so I wasn’t worried that he can’t read until I read this article and oprahcided to send him to a specialist three times a week.

I oprahcide all the time. Don’t you? I would say that since the mid-90s, oprahciding is how most of us make our decisions. There are numerous new experiences and behaviours that have come into our culture and need words to describe them. Think about computers. Skyping, googling, sexting: these are things we do every day. But even as I type this there is a red line underneath each of those words, telling me they don’t exist. That red line is there because these words have been classified as slang. As far as I’m concerned, calling a word slang is the linguistic equivalent of using a racial slur. It is derogative, comes preloaded with assumptions and stereotypes, and prevents us from believing we have the authority to make up our own words. But who can argue that the words below don’t describe something we’ve all experienced?

Digippear verb To use computer technology as a technique to avoid unwanted or feared issues and conversations: I tried to talk to him about his taxes but he digippeared into Facebook.

Overchill verb To use modern air-conditioning systems to excess, especially in offices: Yes, I know it’s August and I’m wearing a cardigan, but they really overchill my cubicle.

Bironical adjective The ability or compulsion to appreciate something simultaneously on both a sincere and ironic level: David’s appreciation of Tom Baker-era Doctor Who is very bironical.

Inventing new words is one of the most rebellious things you can do. We all live under a set of prescribed social assumptions, which are embedded into our words. If you want to think outside your social conditioning, you will need a new word to do it. Every word is a suitcase, into which we pack an idea, and then hand it to someone else. No suitcase: no handoff. Our society is changing, fast, and we need new words to describe it, such as:

Breadsinner noun A man experiencing guilt and shame because he stays home to raise the kids while his wife provides economically: We won’t get Bill to come to Vegas with us because he’s become a breadsinner.

Schadengayfreude noun Delight in the misfortune of gay couples who, once wed, experience the same trials as straight married couples. I know it’s schadengayfreude, but it was kinda refreshing to see that Laura and Jane started bickering all the time after they got married.

It is easy to forget there was a time before dictionaries, when everything was less defined and words had a little more wiggle room. This kept the English language alive. Dictionaries turned the language from a house that we are all free to renovate, into a museum we are only allowed to look at. So go ahead, step over that velvet rope, make up your own words. Remember that somebody, a long time ago, made up every single word in this sentence.

How to make a dictionary of made up words

What do “ carbon footprint ,” “ webisode ” and “ staycation ” all have in common? All three are new additions to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary .

Merriam-Webster says one of the most common questions it is asked is how a new word gets added to the dictionary . The answer is simple: The word gets used.

When deciding what new words or phrases to include in an updated version of the dictionary (and how to define each), editors study language in use, including which words and phrases people use most often and how they use them.

Most editors at Merriam-Webster spend a bit of time each day reading different books, newspapers, magazines and electronic publications. While reading, they keep an eye out for things like new words or phrases, new spellings and new uses for existing words or phrases.

When editors come across something interesting, they mark the word or phrase and collect information that explains how it is used and what it means. This process is called “reading and marking.”

Once a new word or phrase has been marked, editors enter it into a computer system. They also create a “ citation ,” which includes three things: the word or phrase , an example of the word or phrase used in context and bibliographic information about its source (magazine, newspaper, etc.).

When a word or phrase becomes a citation , it is simply a contestant in a contest. There is no guarantee that a citation will be added to the dictionary . Before a new word can be added to the dictionary , editors must find enough citations to prove it is widely used.

Having many citations, though, does not guarantee admission into the dictionary . If citations do not provide a clear definition of the word or phrase or if all the citations come from one source , it may be rejected.

New words or phrases must be found in several citations from a wide range of publications over a significant period of time to win their way into the dictionary .

In case you’re wondering, here are the definitions of the new words and phrases introduced at the start of this wonder:

    : the amount of greenhouse gases (specifically carbon dioxide) emitted by something during a given period.
    : an episode of a show that may or may not have been telecast but can be viewed at a website
    : a vacation spent at home or nearby

Wonder Words (17)

Wonder What’s Next?

Did you know doing the moonwalk can help you lose weight instantly? It’s true. It’s not a special diet or exercise routine, it’s just a matter of science. Join us tomorrow as we journey into outer space and get physic-al.

Try It Out

The dictionary adds a handful of new words and phrases each year, but there are thousands of words in the dictionary that may be new to you. Creating your own Word of the Day Dictionary is a great way to boost your vocabulary.

Creating your dictionary is easy. Just visit Merriam-Webster’s Word Central website for the Daily Buzzword. You’ll be king or queen of the spelling bee in no time!

Once you find your buzzword, write it on a piece of paper, along with its definition. When you’re finished, add a drawing to help others understand what the word means.

Our guest this week is a lexicographer. That’s someone who studies words and, in this case, edits dictionaries. Emily Brewster is a senior editor at Merriam-Webster and host of the podcast Word Matters.

Emily answers a question from 8-year-old Emma in Kentucky, who wants to know how words are added to the dictionary. But before we can answer that, we’ll tackle 7-year-old Julia’s question, “How are new words created?” Join us for an episode about how words are created, when they’ve reached a critical level of use to get their own dictionary entry, and when words are removed from the dictionary. Get ready for some word nerdery!

Download our learning guides: PDF | Google Slide | Transcript

Lexicographers like Emily Brewster read and listen a lot and pay attention to the new words that people are using. They collect these examples and determine how many instances there are of the word and what different kinds of sources are using the word.

“If all the examples are only appearing on TikTok, then that tells us one thing about the word. But as soon as they’re also appearing in, you know, a magazine that you would see at the dentist’s office, then that tells us something else about the word’s status,” Emily explains. “So we are always looking for information, for evidence, of how words are being used by the people who speak the English language. And when we have enough evidence that the word is really part of the language, that it’s a word that most people already will recognize when they hear it, that’s when we know that it’s ready to be added to the dictionary.”

For example, the word COVID-19 was a word created by the World Health Organization about a year and a half ago. “It got into our dictionary faster than any other word in the history of the dictionary has ever been added. Because what we knew immediately was that this word was not going away, that everybody was talking about this word,” Emily says.

Sometimes dictionary editors update the definition of words that were already included. For example, the definitions of “pod” and “bubble” were updated this past January to include a new meaning: people you might have grouped up with when you weren’t seeing other people because of the pandemic.

Other new words recently added to the dictionary include: “makerspace,” where people get together in a common area and often share tools to make their own projects; “BIPOC,” an abbreviation for Black, Indigenous and People of Color; and “second gentleman,” in reference to Vice President Kamala Harris’s husband.

Once it’s been established that a word is in widespread use, an editor will carefully read through evidence of the word in use and formulate a meaning in very careful language. Another editor will determine how old a word is and its earliest usage, another will look at the word’s history, and the word will get a pronunciation. Then it’s ready to be added to the dictionary.

Merriam-Webster updates their online dictionary with new words or new definitions of words a few times a year. Emily says words don’t usually get taken out of dictionaries, but editors do make choices about which words appear in print dictionaries.

Ghost words have nothing to do with otherworldly apparitions, but they’re enough to scare the headwords off lexicographers.

Coined by philologist Walter William Skeat in 1886, ghost words are often the result of misreadings and typographical errors. But not all misread and mistyped words are so spooky. While some that have meandered from their original forms have mostly retained their original meanings, the meaning of ghost words, and by extension the words themselves, never existed, except, as Skeat said, "in the perfervid imagination of ignorant or blundering editors."

Another kind of fake word is the Nihilartikel, which translates from Latin and German as “nothing article.” Nihilartikels are deliberately phony words included to ward off would-be plagiarists. In other words, you know your dictionary content has been stolen if it includes a word that exists only in your dictionary. Here are seven fake words that ended up in Webster’s, Oxford, and the like.

1. Dord

Dord is perhaps the most famous of the ghost words. First appearing in the 1934 second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary, dord was said to mean “density.”

The phantom phrase hung out until 1939, when an editor finally noticed its lack of etymology. Spooked, he checked the files and found the original slip: "D or d, cont/ density,” which was actually referring to abbreviations using the letter D. At the time, words to be entered in the dictionary were typed with spaces between letters so “d or d” might have been interpreted as “d o r d.”

Despite having proved its non-existence, it would take until 1947 before Webster’s pages were dord-free.

2. Abacot

Abacot made its debut in the second edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles, edited by Abraham Fleming and published in 1587. It then found its way into Spelman’s Glossarium (1664), and every major dictionary since. Almost 300 years later, James Murray, the primary editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), discovered that the wordy wraith was actually a misprint of bycoket, a cap or head-dress.

By then, abacot had taken on a life of its own, referring to not just any cap but a “Cap of State, made like a double crown, worn anciently by the Kings of England.”

3. Morse

By the time morse appeared in Sir Walter Scott’s 1821 novel, The Monastery, it already had a couple of accepted noun meanings: a fancy clasp for a cape and another word for walrus. The verb morse, however, was a mystery.

Scott’s use—“Dost thou so soon morse thoughts of slaughter?”—elicited a few theories. The word was thought to be “excellent Lowland Scotch,” and perhaps meant “to prime,” as in the priming of a musket. Another guess was that it came from the Latin mordere, “to bite,” and thus meant “to indulge in biting, stinging, or gnawing thoughts of slaughter.”

In actuality, morse was merely a misinterpretation of the far less exciting nurse meaning to nurture or care for.

4. Phantomnation

A ghostly word in more than one way, phantomnation was defined by Webster’s 1864 American Dictionary of the English Language as an “appearance as of a phantom; illusion,” and was attributed to Alexander Pope’s translation of The Odyssey:

“These solemn vows and holy offerings paid To all the phantomnations of the dead.”

The real word? The no less creepy phantom-nation, a society of specters. We can blame scholar Richard Paul Jodrell for this gaffe, who, in his book The Philology of the English Language, left out hyphens in compound words.

5. Momblishness

As the OED puts it, momblishness is “explained as: muttering talk.” Not surprising with its similarity to the word mumble. While this linguistic bogey was discovered to be a “scribal error” of the plural of ne-moubliemie, French for the forget-me-not flower, we think this is one ghost word that should be brought back from the dead.

6. Cairbow

The curious cairbow was mentioned in an early 20th-century proof of the OED in an example sentence of “glare”: “It [the Cairbow] then suddenly squats upon its haunches, and slides along the glare-ice.”

Cairbow? No one had heard of such thing. Was it some kind of polar creature with an affinity for ice? Did it have a big rainbow on its back?

Nope. Cairbow was merely a misreading of caribou.

7. Esquivalience

The one faker by design, this spurious term, meaning “the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities,” materialized in the second edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD).

Its fraudulence was revealed in the New Yorker. According to the magazine, an “independent investigator” who had heard rumors that there was a fictitious entry under the letter E in the NOAD did some research and guesswork and narrowed down the options. After the investigator sent a list of six possibilities to a group of nine experts, seven identified esquivalience as the fake. A call to NOAD'S then-editor-in-chief, Erin McKean, confirmed it.

McKean said that another editor, Christine Lindberg, had invented the word, and added that esquivalience's “inherent fakeitude is fairly obvious.” Not obvious enough for some: The charlatan ended up in, which cited Webster's New Millennium as its source.

Esquivalience is gone now from the online reference as well as the NOAD, but as with all ghost words, its semantic spirit still remains.

A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2021.

How to make a dictionary of made up words

It turns out, many, many words in English don’t have a dictionary definition. Lexicographer Erin McKean and her team at Wordnik are on a mission to change that.

Did you know that 52% of the unique words of English aren’t in major dictionaries?

In 2010, Harvard researchers published findings in the journal Science that began to quantify the number of definition-less words in English. Using the Google Books Corpus (5 million books, 361 billion words) and comparing samples to major dictionaries (including the Oxford English Dictionary [OED] and the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary [MWD]), the researchers estimated that, in fact,the majority of the words used in English books are the equivalent of “lexical ‘dark matter,’ undocumented in standard references.”

Here’s why: Traditional dictionaries just can’t keep up with the size and scope of English. Mostly that’s because dictionary definitions are very difficult to write. A very talented editor may write seven entries in a day, or she may need weeks to describe just one word.

At Wordnik, we believe that every word should be lookupable. We’re currently on a hunt to find and add a million of these “missing words”. But instead of writing our own definitions (a process that doesn’t scale), we’re using text-mining and machine-learning techniques to find definitions that have already by written. We call these naturally-occurring definitions “free-range definitions”, or “FRDs” (pronounced “freds”).

Here are 20 of our favorite “missing words” and the free-range definitions we’ve found for them.

1. aeroir

“The concept of terroir will be familiar to most Edible Geography readers; recently, we also explored the idea of ‘merroir,’ or tasting place in sea salt. But what about aeroir — the atmospheric taste of place?”
Nicola Twilley,

2. agalmics

“Agalmics is an approach to (or more properly, perhaps, an alternative to) economics which acknowledges that non-scarce goods will always be copied, whether legally or illegally: ‘With our information technologies copying data is the easiest thing in the world, so it would be foolhardy to try to fight it.’”
Elliot Smith,

3. agender

“The term “agender” means to express one’s gender outside of the male and female genders.”
Chanel Adams,

4. anachronym

“At first glance, it seems it may be turning into what linguist Ben Zimmer calls an ‘anachronym,’ a word or phrase that remains in usage even as behaviors change.”
Adrienne LaFrance,

5. bettabilitarianism

“This is consistent with Oliver Wendell Holmes’ ‘bettabilitarianism,’ his answer to utilitarianism; every time we act, we effectively make a bet with the universe which may or may not pay off.”
Thomas Malaby,

6. biketender

“Tomorrow and Saturday, a bicycling bartender, or ‘biketender,’ will deliver cocktails you order up via the Uber app.”
Molly Brown,

7. champing

“The Churches Conservation Trust in the United Kingdom has introduced a new slow-tourism escape it calls “champing”—a play on words for camping in churches.”
Jade Perry,

8. dronie

“The latest self-portrait craze to grip the narcissists of the internet are called dronies – and involve using a remote-controlled aircraft to snap images.”
Jasper Hamill,

9. egregore

“A Christian friend pointed me to the concept of an egregore — ‘an autonomous psychic entity made up of, and influencing, the thoughts of a group of people.’”
Sarah Perry,

10. firenado

“The swirling inferno that you see there is called a firenado, basically a tornado on the ground with smoke and flames shooting up from inside of it.”
John Roberts,

How to make a dictionary of made up words

11. hyperloop

“The hyperloop, you may recall, is a transportation concept pitched in 2013 by industrialist Elon Musk, in which passenger or cargo capsules shoot through tubes at speeds of up to 750 miles an hour.”
Bruce Upbin,

12. letterlocking

“She has coined the word ‘letterlocking’ to describe methods of folding and gluing pages to deter snooping.”
Eve M. Kahn,

13. overchoice

“In Future Shock, [Alvin] Toffler coined the term “overchoice”, predicting that consumers would face an increasing range of choices as sellers continually try to differentiate themselves.”
Steve Coulson,

14. philanthropreneur

“In practice, the philanthropreneur applies practical and entrepreneurial approaches to the pursuit of philanthropy.”
Rajesh Chandy,

15. sneckdown

“A sneckdown is a curb extension caused by snowfall that shows where a street can be narrowed to slow cars + shorten ped crossing distances.”

16. sordophone

“Earlier today, we asked for help coming up with a word for that thing where a word is innocent in its native language, but sounds like a dirty word to foreign speakers. And not only did we come up with a word — “sordophone” — but also, a pretty impressive list of words that travelers should be careful about saying.”
Charlie Jane Anders,

17. sprummer

“Mr Entwisle has proposed “sprummer” – the season between spring and summer – and “sprinter” – an early spring.”
Ben Schott,

18. supertasker

“The term “supertasker” is given to individuals able to successfully accomplish two or more tasks at once — a quality possessed by less than 2.5 percent of people.”
Josh Bennett,

19. typogram

“A typogram is a word that, through the manipulation of the letterform itself, illustrates the meaning of the word.”
Ali Gray,

20. zemblanity

“Zemblanity, the opposite of serendipity, the faculty of making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design.”
William Safire, The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time

In our hunt for a million missing words, we may find more than a few that are “madeupical” or nonce formations (words which are coined by one person, but which never get more widely used). But we think every word deserves a chance to be better known!

Featured image by Dian Lofton/TED, photos by iStock.

About the author

Erin McKean founded Wordnik, an online dictionary that houses traditionally accepted words and definitions, but also asks users to contribute new words and new uses for old words. Before Wordnik, she was one of the youngest editors of the New Oxford American Dictionary. She is the author of multiple books, including "That's Amore" and the "Weird and Wonderful Words" series.

Eley Williams tells the story of two word-mad characters who work for the same dictionary publisher 120 years apart. This novel is perfect for anyone who loves puns, crosswords and witty writing.


This is FRESH AIR. “The Liar’s Dictionary” is the first novel by the Prize-Winning British writer Eley Williams. It tells the story of two lexicographers who are obsessed with words and love. Our critic-at-large John Powers says it’s a book bursting with cleverness yet also filled with heart.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: I recently learned a great word – Mountweazel. You may already know it, but if you don’t, a Mountweazel is a made-up word or name that publishers deliberately put in a reference book to catch those who steal their work without attribution. If they find this fake word or name in another dictionary or encyclopedia, they can prove they’ve been ripped off. You’ll meet a frolicking heard of Mountweazels in “The Liar’s Dictionary,” the wonderful first novel by British writer Eley Williams. This book takes the most unpromising of heroes – two lexicographers – and then sets them loose in an effervescent romp about language, love and life. If you like puns, crosswords, Scrabble, the Urban Dictionary or simply enjoy witty writing, this sweet, slyly structured, unexpectedly touching book will go down like a hot fudge sundae.

“The Liar’s Dictionary” interweaves the tales of two word-man characters who work for the same dictionary publisher, Swansby’s, 120 years apart. In 1899, we meet Peter Winceworth, a poor, nervous, sensitive loner who dreams of moving to a seaside cottage. It’s typical of his life that – having faked a lisp to win sympathy – Winceworth gets assigned to work on the letter S – or F, he must call it. Meanwhile, in present day London, Mallory is a chipperly, angsty 20-something intern who spends her days answering the same threatening phone caller. Her official task is to find all the fake entries that some disaffected lexicographer secretly put in Swansby’s dictionary without telling the editors.

Both have romantic troubles. Mallory adores her action-oriented girlfriend, Pip, and feels cowardly because she can’t muster the courage to be out. To her shame, she calls Pip her flatmate. For his part, Winceworth becomes smitten with a smart, beautiful Russian named Sophia Slivkovna. Trouble is, she’s the fiancee of his most hated co-worker, a man who is everything Winceworth is not – rich, handsome, thoughtless and cruel.

You’ll find yourself rooting for both Winceworth and Mallory. But their stories aren’t the most immediately enjoyable feature of “The Liar’s Dictionary.” We first noticed the novel’s exuberant love of language. Structured like a dictionary, as the title suggests, the book unfolds in 26 chapters – from A is for artful to Z is for zugzwang.

Every page is intoxicated with words. Williams laces her book with so many enjoyable ones that I kept my own dictionary at the ready. Many of the words she spotlights are real, like glabella, which I learned is the bit of skin between the eyebrows and above the nose. Others are cooked up by Mallory or Winceworth, who keep dreaming up words that should exist to identify a familiar feeling of reality. My favorite is cassiculation, which is defined is the sensation of walking into a spiderweb.

Even as Williams revels in the power of words to help us capture experience, she makes clear the many ways they also deceive and imprison us. Words make us believe we can pin down meanings just so in a world too fluid ever to be pinned down. That’s the case with the threatening caller, who’s furious that Swansby’s dictionary has changed the definition of marriage so it no longer refers exclusively to a union between a man and a woman. For her part, Mallory riffs on the word queer rather than tell the world of her queerness.

Both she and Winceworth need a jolt to start fully living. And they get them – Mallory from a life-threatening crisis at the office, Winceworth from his encounters with Sophia, which offers dialogue more sparkling than any romantic comedy I’ve seen in ages. There’s a scene with them and a pelican in St. James Park that had me laughing out loud.

Now, “The Liar’s Dictionary” isn’t perfect. Like so many clever novels, it occasionally tries a bit too hard to dazzle. Nabokov had the same problem. And some may find its ending more satisfying conceptually than emotionally. It is never less than a delight and a wise one at that. Rudyard Kipling once said that words are the most powerful drug. And by the end of the novel, Mallory and Winceworth come to see this. They learn to start seeking the future, not inside the dictionary, but outward in the big, wide world.

GROSS: John Powers reviewed “The Liar’s Dictionary” by Eley Williams.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we’ll talk about how the Senate filibuster became a tool of obstruction. It dates back to the Jim Crow era, when Southern senators wanted to preserve white supremacy. That’s according to Adam Jentleson, who will be my guest. He’s the author of the new book “Kill Switch: The Rise Of The Modern Senate And The Crippling Of American Democracy.” He knows the Senate rules. He used to be Harry Reid’s deputy chief of staff. I hope you’ll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR’s executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I’m Terry Gross.


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