Surprising facts about dictionaries
Dictionaries might seem like a rather dry subject. But if you believe that dictionaries wouldn’t yield interesting facts and even a little amusement, you would be wrong.
It takes many years and a lot of people to compile a dictionary, so these enormous reference works are never really finished. They must be continually updated with new words and new senses of words. All languages are constantly evolving, and dictionaries must develop with them. No dictionary could ever contain every word found in any language as the compilers can only update dictionaries with new words and meanings after they are already in use. Lexicographers cannot predict such developments. They merely react to them.
As dictionaries are such massive works and humans are involved in creating them, they inevitably contain extraordinary entries and a few mistakes.
Here are some interesting facts about dictionaries that might surprise you.
The longest word was created as a joke
There are so many entries in most English language dictionaries that you wouldn’t want to read every one of them to find the longest word. If you did, you would discover that the word in question would probably be “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis”. This is the name of a lung disease caused by inhaling fine ash and sand dust. In many English dictionaries, this is the longest word that is listed. It is an invented word to describe a newly discovered condition and is said to have been created to poke fun at ridiculously long and complicated medical terminology.
The longest word in English doesn’t appear in any dictionaries
Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis is a very long word. However, there is a longer one. Indeed, it is so long that it isn’t included in dictionaries because it would take up too much space. The word is the name of a protein that is generally referred to as “titin”. It features 189,819 letters and would fill 12 pages if printed. That makes it the longest word found in any language.
The longest non-coined or non-technical word in English
The longest non-coined or non-technical word that appears in English dictionaries is the infamous “antidisestablishmentarianism”. This word is no longer in common usage. It was created in the 19th century to describe opposition to the disestablishment (withdrawal of state support) of the Church of England.
The longest non-coined or non-technical word in common usage
If you are wondering what would be the longest English word that you are ever likely to use, because you are unlikely to use those mentioned above, then that word would probably be “incomprehensibilities”. It’s not quite as impressive as antidisestablishmentarianism but at least you might find a use for it at some point in your life. Isn’t it wonderful that the longest non-technical word in English is one that describes states of being extremely difficult to understand?
Dictionaries contain fake words
Most dictionaries contain fake words, also known as ghost words. These are generally not mistakes but rather deliberate inclusions to catch out plagiarists. If fake words are inserted into a dictionary and then a new dictionary subsequently features them, it is obvious that the compilers of the new dictionary have plagiarised the original work rather than research words themselves.When the first edition of the Collins COBUILD English Language Dictionary was published it contained the verb “hink”. The meaning cited was “If you hink, you think hopefully and unrealistically about something.” The word was actually an in-house joke and didn’t really exist. Some of the dictionary’s reviewers thought that its inclusion was an error and that it was a misspelling of “think”.
In 2005, the editors of the New Oxford American Dictionary added the fake word “esquivalience” to the new edition of the dictionary. They weren’t particularly surprised when “esquivalience” then appeared on dictionary.com with the entirely imaginary meaning that they had conjured up!
This entry has since been removed from dictionary.com.
Dictionary editors make mistakes
The most famous dictionary error ever made was the inclusion of the word “dord” in Webster’s New International Dictionary, published in 1934. The compilers were working their way through piles of cards, each featuring a word that should be entered. They also had another pile of cards for abbreviations that needed to be included in the dictionary. Unfortunately, a card for the abbreviation “D or d” (for density) found its way into the pile of word cards and “dord” was entered into the dictionary with the meaning “density”. It took five years for anyone to notice the error!
Sometimes real words are inadvertently omitted from dictionaries. When the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was first compiled, the word “bondmaid” was missing. It remained missing for 50 years. The word had been in common usage until the 16th century but by the 19th century, most people wouldn’t have been aware of its existence. Perhaps that’s why it took so long for its omission from the OED to be noted and corrected.
Sometimes the same mistakes appear in multiple dictionaries
In 2010, an Australian physics professor asked the OED to correct a mistake. The definition given in the entry for the word “siphon” said that the operative force that enables a siphon to work is atmospheric pressure. This is incorrect as it is gravity that provides the operative force. The Herald Sun, an Australian newspaper, reported the story and suggested that an extensive search of dictionaries had not revealed a single one that had defined the word “siphon” correctly. It had taken 99 years for anyone to notice this issue. The entry in the OED will be corrected when the next edition is published.
Even Dr Johnson made mistakes
Dr Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language contained at least one glaring error. Dr Johnson’s definition of the word “pastern” was “the knee of a horse”. It isn’t! The pastern of a horse is the portion of the leg below the fetlock. When asked why he had made such an error, Dr Johnson’s response was “Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance.”
Dictionaries are never complete, and it turns out that they are rarely entirely correct either. These incredible reference works can largely be relied upon for accuracy, but occasionally they are just plain wrong, sometimes deliberately.