13 Fascinating and Funny English Language Mistakes
From memorable misprints to fake words to phrases you might be mispronouncing, here are a few funny English language mistakes you should know, adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube.
1. The Word Dord
Did you know that dord is a synonym for density? Probably not, because it isn’t. Dord is a ghost word—a non-existent word that slipped into the dictionary. In the case of dord, it stayed there for about 13 years.
This particular flub occurred in the early 1930s, after an editor typed an entry that read "D or d," meaning that density can be abbreviated with an uppercase D or a lowercase d. During the editorial process, all dictionary entries were supposed to have a space between each letter so any pronunciation marks could be added later. The next editor simply thought a space was missing between o and r, and the word dord ended up in the 1934 second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary.
In 1939, a Merriam-Webster editor spotted dord and scrawled “A ghost word!” in red on a note card asking for its removal. Somehow, it managed to stay in the dictionary for another eight years. When a different editor submitted yet another note card pointing out the error in 1947, dord was finally deleted.
2. From Bycoket to Abacot
Dord’s 13 years in print is nothing compared to the three centuries that abacot spent haunting reference materials. It all started in the late 16th century when Abraham Fleming was editing Raphael Holinshed’s chronicles of British history. At one point, Holinshed mentions King Henry’s “highe cappe of estate, called Abococke, garnished with two riche crownes.” For some reason, Fleming changed abococke to abacot in his 1587 version of Holinshed’s Chronicles, and the ghost word landed in Henry Spelman’s Glossarium in 1664. For the next 200 years, dictionaries listed abacot as a double-crowned cap of state worn by English kings, just like Holinshed had described it.
It wasn’t until the 1880s that the erroneous origins of abacot were finally exposed. Oxford English Dictionary editor James Murray traced abacot back through a comedy of misspellings that started with bycoket, an actual word for a peaked cap. From there, it became bycocket, then bococket, and then someone accidentally printed a bococket as one word: abococket. Holinshed dropped the t, and Fleming added his own inexplicable flair.
To Murray, the absurdity of the situation wasn’t just about abacot being a fake word. It was also laughable that centuries’ worth of scholars thought it was specifically used to describe dual-crowned headgear fit only for kings. The real term, bycoket, describes something less grandiose—it’s the type of hat Robin Hood is often portrayed as wearing. “The sense which the dictionaries give to abacot … is as ludicrously wide of the mark as the form itself,” Murray said.
3. Imogen By Any Other Name
Holinshed’s Chronicles were well-known during the Renaissance era—Shakespeare used them as a source for some of his plays. One of them is Cymbeline, about an ancient British king and his daughter, Imogen. But the name Imogen was uncommon (potentially even bordering on nonexistent) at the time; and while it’s believable that the master wordsmith might have made it up, some scholars think he originally wrote Innogen.
For one, the name Innogen was mentioned in another part of Holinshed’s Chronicles, and we know Shakespeare was well-acquainted with the text. Cymbeline wouldn’t even have been the first time the Bard used the name: In a 1600 quarto of Much Ado About Nothing, Innogen is mentioned as Leonato’s wife. In Cymbeline, Imogen marries a character named Posthumus Leonatus. Pretty compelling evidence so far—and the plot thickens.
In 1611, an astrologer named Simon Forman saw the earliest-known performance of Cymbeline and wrote about it in his diary. By his account, the princess was named Innogen, not Imogen. But when the whole play was first published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, the editors listed the character as Imogen. Could the two Ns have just looked like an M? Or was Forman mistaken and Shakespeare deliberately chose a rare variant of the name for his character?
Cut to 400 years later, and Imogen’s still a common moniker in the UK— it even topped Nameberry.com’s list of most popular baby names for a brief time in 2014. The same can't be said for Innogen.
4. Free Reign (And Other Eggcorns)
Of course, verbal mix-ups aren’t specific to character names in Shakespearean plays—they slip into our language often, and it can sometimes seem like the wrong word or phrase makes just as much sense as the right one does. This is called an eggcorn, a term that linguist Geoffrey Pullum coined in response to a story of a woman who thought acorns were called eggcorns. You can kind of see how eggcorn seemed like a suitable description for a small, egg-shaped nut.
Eggcorns are about as bountiful in the English language as acorns are in autumn. Take, for example, free rein and free reign. The correct version is rein, as in: You’re a horse, and your rider is holding the reins so loosely that you can do whatever you want. In fact, horseback-riders used it when talking about actual horses and reins. That said, reign seems logical, too. If you’re a monarch who reigns over a whole kingdom, you have at least as much autonomy as your average independent equine.
Right now, we know that free rein is technically the correct phrase and free reign is the eggcorn. But it’s possible that in another hundred years or so, people will have lost track of which is which, and they’ll be equally acceptable—we’ve already reached that point with plenty of other everyday expressions.
5. Damp Squid
Say you finally make dinner reservations at a hip restaurant that your friends have been raving about for months. When you get there, the air-conditioning is broken, you’re seated next to a raucous crowd, and your fried calamari is soggy and cold. Not only have you experienced damp squid, but also a damp squib—something highly anticipated that ends up being a total letdown. A squib is a type of firework, so a damp squib is one that’s too wet to produce the delightful display you expected.
But squib is an obsolete word these days, and people often say “damp squid” by mistake. And though damp squid doesn’t make quite as much sense as the original expression, it does evoke a certain image of a sad, droopy invertebrate floating around in cloudy waters. You might be thinking: Aren’t squids always damp? Isn’t damp squid redundant? And the answer is yes. This could explain why it hasn’t yet earned a spot in the dictionary. But that’s not to say that it won’t—dictionaries have their fair share of redundant terms.
Let’s talk about irregardless. Since time immemorial (or at least as long as Twitter has existed), pedants have taken pleasure in pointing out that irregardless is a redundant form of the word regardless. The suffix less already means without, so adding the prefix ir, which means basically the same thing, creates a lexical abomination that essentially means without without regard. Defining irregardless as not without regard would make a bit more sense, but that’s not how people use it. They just use it as a synonym for regardless.
Irregardless is in most major dictionaries—and it’s been there for some time. Merriam-Webster added the word to its unabridged edition way back in 1934, and its current editors recently published a blog post justifying its longstanding inclusion. They wrote:
“The fact that it is unnecessary, as there is already a word in English with the same meaning (regardless) is not terribly important; it is not a dictionary's job to assess whether a word is necessary before defining it. The fact that the word is generally viewed as nonstandard, or as illustrative of poor education, is likewise not important; dictionaries define the breadth of the language, and not simply the elegant parts at the top.”
Merriam-Webster is, in some ways, laying out a descriptivist understanding of what a dictionary is meant to do: to describe how language is actually used. Other sources would argue for a prescriptivist understanding of language and usage [PDF], where an authority prescribes how words ought to be used.
Fun fact: Unthaw has an entry in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, too. Its definition is a single word—"thaw."
7. I Could Care Less
When you’re completely unbothered by something, do you say “I couldn’t care less” or “I could care less?” According to Merriam-Webster, the version with not has been around at least since the mid-19th century, whereas the version without not gained ground in the 1950s—perhaps even later. I couldn’t care less isn’t just older—it also seems to makes more sense, when you think about it. If you couldn’t care less about something, you don’t care about it at all. If you could care less about something, you’re basically admitting that you care about it, at least a little.
That said, I could care less has become such a common colloquialism that Merriam-Webster deems both phrases correct. Does that bother you, or could you care less?
8. and 9. Two Misprints of Biblical Proportions
In 1631, Robert Barker and Martin Lucas printed 1000 copies of the King James Bible with the commandment “Thou shalt commit adultery.” When King Charles I found out a year later, he furiously ordered officials to track down the bibles and burn every last one. The printers were also fined 300 pounds, a penalty that was later converted into a directive to buy and print Greek works as a sort of service-based retribution.
That one immoral directive wasn’t the only error in the book. In the fifth chapter of Deuteronomy, the 24th verse is supposed to mention God’s glory and greatness. But court records say there was another mistake, rendering the passage “And ye said, Behold, the LORD our God hath shewed us his glory and his great-asse.” Though Biblical scholars caution that the apparent snafu would likely have been understood as a reference to a donkey and not buttocks, the mistake was so egregious that some scholars have theorized that a fellow printer actually sabotaged the book to discredit Barker and usurp his position. We might never know the truth. According to historian Gordon Campbell, the great asse misprint isn’t known to have survived beyond a couple potential pages that been blotted out with ink. You can still see the omitted "not" in around a dozen Bibles, though, which escaped the book-burning blaze and are housed in museums and private collections around the world.
10. Writing Peak When You Mean Peek
Even the most detail-oriented grammar enthusiasts sometimes get things wrong, especially when it comes to homophones—or words that sound the same, but have different spellings and/or definitions.
If you’re referring to the highest point of a mountain or of anything else, that’s peak. If you’re talking about a quick glance, that’s peek. Here’s a helpful way to remember that: Eyes has two Es, and so does peek. If you’re writing sneak peek, don’t let sneak’s EA sneak over into the second word.
11. Flack Instead of Flak
Flak is another tough one. For getting or giving criticism, that’s flak. Since quack, snack, blackjack, and a ton of other words end in ACK, people tend to spell flak that way, too. But it’s actually a truncated version of the German word fliegerabwehrkanone, which is a type of gun used to target aircraft. That said, flack in this context has become so common that Merriam-Webster lists it as a “less common spelling.” So you’re free to use it if you want—you just might catch some flak for it.
12. Mispronouncing Forte
If you catch flak for calling your strong suit a “fort” instead of a “four-tay,” however, go ahead and tell your critics they’re wrong. Forte in this context is derived from fort, the French word for strong, which we then, for some reason, decided to spell as if we were using the feminine form of the French word. The masculine fort would be pronounced more like “for,” but the feminine forte would be more like "fort," which is why it’s considered a correct pronunciation in English, alongside "four-tay" (a pronunciation, by the way, which, has its own detractors in this context). As Merriam-Webster’s online usage guide advises, “take your choice, knowing that someone somewhere will dislike whichever variant you choose.”
Un-fort-unately, so many people believe fort should be “four-tay” that you might be better off choosing a different word altogether. And by the way, forte when used to describe a piece of music comes from the Italian word for loud, and you should definitely pronounce that “four-tay.”
13. The Great GIF Debate
Possibly the most heated pronunciation debate in the English language concerns a pesky little file format called a “GIF.” Or “JIF.” Since it stands for Graphics Interchange Format, it seems like you’d pronounce the G just like it is in “graphics.” But ever since Steve Wilhite invented it in 1987, he’s maintained that it’s supposed to be “JIF.” In 2013, he told The New York Times, “The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations. They are wrong. It is a soft G, pronounced 'jif.' End of story.” But if this list has taught you anything, it’s probably that there never really is an “end of story” when it comes to language.
In 2015, Université de Montréal linguistics professor Michael Dow mined The English Lexicon Project for all the words containing GI. Of those 105 words, nearly twice as many were pronounced with a soft G—think gin and magic—than a hard G, as in gift. The GI words said with hard Gs, however, were used more than twice as often as the soft G ones. So, beyond Wilhite’s own wishes, there’s not really a linguistic precedent to tell us whether “GIF” or “JIF” should be used. And even if there were, people wouldn’t necessarily follow it.