Monday, March 7, 2011

Word Imperfect

Ben Zimmer, who followed William Safire as author of On Language, a now defunct weekly column in The New York Times Magazine, reported the case of a young woman who received a text message from her father that said: “Your mom and I are going to divorce next month.”

When she called her father in alarm, he told her, “I wrote Disney, and the phone changed it to divorce.  We’re going to Disneyworld!”

The auto-correction feature that you find on most smartphones—and the officious Microsoft Word spell-check—can cause you to say some peculiar things if you’re not careful.  This phenomenon is known in the trade as the “Cupertino Effect” as a result of an error made frequently by the first Word spell-check in 1997.  It refused to recognize the word cooperation unless it was hyphenated as co-operation.  It substituted Cupertino instead—no small irony, since Cupertino, California, is the headquarters of Microsoft’s arch-rival, Apple.

The Times has reported numerous howlers created by technology run amok.  “Sorry to hear about your feces” was intended to be “Sorry to hear about your fever.”  An invitation to “boardgame night” became an invitation to “bisexual night.”

Microsoft’s 2007 Office spell-checker (perhaps programmed by a Republican) didn’t contain Obama—and unfortunately recommended that it be changed in every case to Osama.  

Microsoft Word has insisted to me that The Great Gatsby should be The Great Gutsy, Aubrey Beardsley is really Aubrey Birdseye, John Van Druten is better known as John Van Duration, and Shakespeare intended to name his play Ethel rather than Othello.

You can probably figure out what was meant by these mistaken changes of what the texter intended:

            I’m exhausted from helping my dad clean his condom.

            I’m so thirsty—I had way too much sodomy last night.

            Why does our dorm smell like incest?

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has little patience with being told to change his spelling; he figures he can make enough mistakes himself without any help.

            A poet with verbal agility
            Penned odes filled with grace and nobility.
            Thanks to Microsoft’s failure,
            He extolled genitalia,
            When the word that he meant was gentility.   

1 comment:

  1. Ha! It's the modern day version of Dogberry's malapropisms, brought upon us by technology.