English As She Is Rote

There is a particular kind of English common on the Net, in which every possible homophone error is perpetrated. To my consternation, I have observed myself making these mistakes too, though generally only in e-mail. I generally see them when I read through and edit. The greatest single affliction of the language in the 21st century, however, is that so many people have never even heard of reading-through-and-correcting.

It was doubtless not Microsoft’s intention, but must nevertheless be its ultimate responsibility, that millions of users of MS Word do not realise that the alternatives shown in Spellcheck are options, to be selected by a person who actually knows the difference between the various words. For example, the spellchecker chokes on “idiocracy”. Quite right too, it is a recent coinage and has not yet become part of the language. The two options given are “democracy” and “adhocracy”, which is – like so many of MS Word’s spelling options – not a real word at all. Similarly, Microsoft’s English dictionary has not yet caught up to the term “blog”, and wants me to write bog, bloc, blob, blot and so forth. Someone else’s system will probably throw up more objections than mine, because through the Add function I have expanded my software’s vocabulary.

Now, if I hit the Change button on mental autopilot, “idiocracy” will become “adhocracy” and “blog” will become “bog”. Being a literate person who knows what he wants to write, but who is not much of a typist, that is not how I actually use Spellcheck; I choose a respelling, or hit Ignore, Ignore All or Add, or stop the check. It is my call, always. (I also make vast use of Autocorrect to anticipate certain chronic misspellings, that are due never to ignorance but to lack of manual dexterity.)

It follows that anyone who assumes that the top Spellcheck “suggestion” is automatically the Right Answer is going to make a frightful mess. I think there is even a term for the kind of malapropism that results, which I cannot now call to mind. There is certainly a poem, which begins:

“I have a spelling checker,
It came with my PC.
It plane lee marks four my revue

Miss steaks aye can knot sea.

Eye ran this poem threw it,
Your sure reel glad two no.

Its vary polished in it’s weigh.
My checker tolled me sew.”

This would be funny, were it not that the poem is only a mild exaggeration of the real English of the Internet.

Posted on July 5, 2011 at 11:00 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: CULTURAL ODDS AND ENDS, Some Notes On Language

5 Responses

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  1. Written by Mr Fnortner
    on July 5, 2011 at 19:34
    Permalink

    Ben Zimmer wrote about this some five years ago (although he was not the first to notice it) on Language Log, and passed along the name “Cupertino Effect” or “a Cupertino” for the phenomenon. See http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002911.html.

    It’s one thing to err; it’s another entirely to be thick enough to take a stupid correction at face value.

  2. Written by James Beck
    on July 5, 2011 at 19:51
    Permalink

    I seldom use spelling/grammar checking for personal correspondence. I have to accept the blame for most of my errors. Some of mine are mildly amusing, but they are nothing like those in Zimmer’s article.

  3. Written by Hugo Grinebiter
    on July 5, 2011 at 22:15
    Permalink

    Ah yes, that was it, thanks Mr. F. I find “cupertino” difficult to remember precisely because it is not an English word. Wonder if it means anything in Italian. As well as the thick takers-at-face-value, we must be astounded at those, probably Microserfs, who put the word into any kind of electronic dictionary in the first place. How did that happen?

  4. Written by Mr Fnortner
    on July 6, 2011 at 04:44
    Permalink

    Cupertino, California, is the headquarters of Apple. It was named, indirectly, after St. Joseph of Copertino (Italy). I can’t find a source for the meaning of Copertino. Of course, many geographic and political names find their way into spelling dictionaries, and I am sure that the folks at Microsoft wanted to make certain that Apple’s hometown was in their spell checker. What is mysterious is that this same passion for inclusion did not ensure that co-operation also was there.

  5. Written by urban
    on July 6, 2011 at 05:58
    Permalink

    Many ‘Copr’ words reference fecal excrement, as in ‘thin rivulets of spittle squirted from the corners of Beau’s coprophageous grin’ That would leave us with ‘little shit’ as the direct etymological meaning of ‘copertino’ and by extension ‘cupertino’.

    By this reckoning Copernicus comes out as ‘shit devil’. No wonder he had his magnum opus published only after his death. He couldn’t bear to hear all the jokes about his name, the 16th century equivalent of Lipschitz or Fuchs. I’ll bet the bullies just had a field day with little Nick on the playground.

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