American Fiction

Out of Print

He was an unobtrusive character, one you wouldn’t look at twice if you passed him in the street.

Drab and mousy, outfitted in neutral tones, he was just a wisp of a fellow. You might describe him as shadowy, furtive, ephemeral. 

His tweed overcoat, an odd blend of tan and grey, lent him the illusion of bulk. Where its collar — turned up at the back of his neck against the wind — met the back of his moleskin cap, there was a suggestion of almost colorless hair.

Though young, he had an appearance at once world-weary and otherworldly. He walked with shoulders hunched, as though defending himself from his fate.

Never such a bland visage have you seen; never such unexceptional features. His skin was paper thin, his complexion pasty. You might have supposed him to be an apparition.

He made entry into a venerable publishing establishment, slipping in amongst his cohorts. 

He should have been recognized as an intruder — but there was such a frenzy of activity, an urgency of progress about the place, that his presence went almost unnoticed.

One subordinate might have nudged another and whispered, “That fellow over there – never noticed him before.”

The other, with a cursory glance, perhaps replied, “Doesn’t seem to get much done.”

The newcomer was unremarkable and went unremarked. Due to a lack of communication amongst the executives, he remained as one of the company.

And there! There was the paradox; the whole of the mission was to further communication. To lend meaning to everything.

Dord was never called upon to explain himself. His position held no real meaning.

Others were so busy at their assignments that, had they noticed him at all, they would have assumed that he belonged there. After all, who would choose to hang about the place without purpose?

Incredibly, Dord was able to secure a place for himself. Cloaked in anonymity, he blended in amongst his fellows and lurked in the background.

He had the appearance of belonging. He looked enough like some of the others that his presence was not questioned.

Not immediately.

Someone supposed that he belonged in the science department, particularly in physics and chemistry. He was assigned to the study of density, but that was not to be his ultimate destiny.

He was a steady fellow during his — dare we call it “tenure”? He neither performed harm nor good, but he was always present.

Some eight years after his arrival, he was discovered by one of the higher-ups.

“Who is this Dord? How did he get in here? What’s he up to?”

The chiefs ran an extensive background check, and found no records whatsoever. No family, no place of origin. Nothing bad, nothing good. Just… nothing.

Those in charge of the work realized that Dord didn’t belong there, and recommended his removal. 

“If you will just go away quietly,” they suggested, “we won’t press charges for intrusion. We'll forget you were ever here.”

He wasn’t to be rooted out so easily. He demanded compensation for his wasted years.

Something akin to Bartleby the Scrivener, he preferred “not to make any change”.

He was an invalid — indeed, a useless member of the assemblage.

Not only that, he had become an embarrassment. A clear indication of careless oversight.

It took a further seven years before he was banished from the premises.

In reality, Dord was an accidental creation. A ghost word.

The error came about in 1931, when the Merriam-Webster Company was creating the New International Dictionary, second edition.

The chemistry editor submitted an index card intending to add “density” to a list of words that can be abbreviated by the letter “D”. He wrote it as “D or d, cont./density.”

The original card being lost, a new one was given to the printer. Someone had awarded dord a part of speech (noun), and had thoughtfully included a pronunciation.

Dord was not questioned or corrected by proofreaders, who might have thought the word so specialized that it was beyond their scope of work. They accepted it as submitted. Their failing was in overlooking Dord’s lack of etymology.

When the dictionary was published in 1934, there sat:

dord (dôrd), n. Physics & Chem. Abbreviation for density.

He was nestled between a small kangaroo (dorcopsis) and a golden color (doré). And there he stayed for several years.

Even when he was dismissed, Dord occasionally appeared in a new printing. He would not be entirely excised until 1947– sixteen years after his original manifestation.

The space left by Dord was an awkward one.

He shouldn’t have been there in the first place, but he had been. And the fact that he had, meant that his removal left a gap.

The positions around him had to be adjusted and expanded to compensate for the absence of Dord. Some of them grumbled at the extra work, and wished for the strange fellow to return.

Poor Dord – who had never really been of any use – would be missed.

In retirement, Dord has become a curiosity. He has received more notice than he ever did during his career. He has become a minor celebrity in some circles. He has been mentioned in books and articles, featured on websites, and listed along with certain others of similar questionable ancestry.

Years on, the loss of Dord was lamented by one of the chiefs of his field, in fact the editor-in-chief, who stated that it was “probably too bad” that Dord’s position had been eliminated — because, why shouldn’t Dord stand for “density”?

There ought to be a memorial to the unfortunate non-word, complete with a suitably somber dirge played upon an ancient Irish horn. The instrument makes a deep bass humming sound known as dord.

*Epitaph for a Lost Companion*

Do be careful when you edit,

And be sure that you have read it

With a consummate degree of vigilance—

Lest you fail to undertake 

As you look for a mistake

The amendment of a shoddy circumstance.

Requiescat in Pace


1931 - 1947

July 30, 2022 02:00

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


Yves. ♙
20:04 Aug 07, 2022

A completely unique approach to the prompt and a great little story in itself-- reminded me of some of Ray Bradbury's writing! I love both the idea and the execution here, especially the little epitaph at the end. Thanks for sharing!


Cindy Strube
00:08 Aug 10, 2022

Thanks for reading - glad you enjoyed it! I wondered if it really even made the prompt… Just thought Dord needed some recognition.


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Michał Przywara
21:47 Jul 30, 2022

Ha, fantastic! I had never heard of dord before, so I learned something. This is also an entertaining way to present the story. A part of me does feel for the poor word, excised so without mercy. And ironically, by removing "dord" from the text, they made the dictionary less dord (dordly? How does this relate to just "dense"? I guess we'll never know.) I also like the personification, and some random forgettable guy just walking into some place and pretending he works there. It's reminiscent of Kramer working at Brandt-Leland in Seinfeld.


Cindy Strube
23:13 Aug 01, 2022

Yeah, I’m a word nerd! I have stored a lot of trivia about words. I did look up the official history of the poor fellow again though… It is a bit of a shame to think of such a quirky artifact being willfully removed. Merriam-Webster should have copyrighted it! ; )


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Lily Finch
20:41 Aug 04, 2022

Cindy, I enjoyed this immensely. The description of Dord at the beginning and his coat may be a tad bit overdone. But I like that I learned something new today. Thanks for the great read! LF6


Cindy Strube
01:30 Aug 09, 2022

Thanks for the read and comment - glad you enjoyed! And thanks for the note about the coat. Maybe that description is a little overdone; I was attempting to make the point that Dord just blended in… ; ) I do love it when readers learn something new from my stories! Off to read some of your writing now.


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Tommy Goround
00:02 Aug 01, 2022

Clapping. Most brilliant (smart/interesting/layered/better than 99% of others) theme I have seen in a time. I have now composed and erased at least 2 responses. To be honest, I don't care for the backstory. Have failed to offer a plausible option. Pardon. The word brilliant still applies. Was hoping to drag out some of the emotion that comes from a worthy death.


Cindy Strube
23:25 Aug 01, 2022

Thanks - glad you enjoyed! I just included minimal backstory, because that part really happened. Didn’t want to make bare facts the focus, but didn’t think it could be left out. I appreciate your reading, and efforts composing a response!


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply

Bring your short stories to life

Fuse character, story, and conflict with tools in the Reedsy Book Editor. 100% free.