User Error: Replace User
Today marks the 6th Anniversary of Wryly Coyote, the very first post of which I dedicated to my brother Jerry. July 19th is his birthday. I’d also like to thank all seven of my readers, as well as my long-suffering webmaster, John, my nonsensei.
“Homosexual eases into 100m final at Olympic Trials,” read the headline on the site of the American Family Association, a heavily conservative Christian cult. “Tyson Homosexual easily won his semifinal for the 100 meter at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials . . .” The site downloaded an AP story, but they had used the search and replace algorithm to replace all instances of the word ‘gay’ with the word ‘homosexual.’ Tyson Gay is an American sprinter.
Ben Zimmer is an editor at Oxford University Press. He has a regular column on the University of Pennsylvania’s website, “Language Log,” and I owe him tribute for many of these examples of the law of unintended consequences in using search and replace (find and replace in some systems).
In July 2009, in The Chicago Tribune online obituary for Walter Cronkite, they’d replaced all instances of ‘Cronkite’ with ‘Mr. Cronkite,’ out of respect, you know. So the title is “Walter Leland Mr. Cronkite,” and there’s a statement by his daughter Kathy: “ ‘At home, he was gregarious, relishing spinning a one-line joke into an elaborate shaggy dog story,’ daughter Kathy Mr. Cronkite recalled.”
The UK’s Guardian ran an article in 2012 about a new ebook translation of War and Peace. It was by Barnes and Noble, for their Nook e-reader. They had replaced any mention of ‘kindle’ with ‘nook,’ as Kindle is their competitor Amazon’s e-reader. So there’s a line that reads, “It was as if a light had been nookd in a carved and painted lantern.”
Commonweal magazine found an old English version of a Pope Pius XII encyclical, in which all mentions of the word ‘times’ had been changed to ‘Times New Roman.’ A 2012 UK version of Trivial Pursuit had replaced all instances of ‘km’ with ‘kilometres,’ so a question on one of the cards read, “The film ‘Australia’ starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackilometresan is set during which war?” And a 1990 article on finance and economics in The Fresno Bee meant to use the expression ‘back in the black,’ but instead it came out ‘back in the African-American.’
The Boston Metro is a free daily paper. They must have a search and replace algorithm so that if the day of the week mentioned was the day before, it’s replaced with ‘yesterday.’ That can be the only explanation for this item that had to be in the Tuesday edition after the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday: “King’s birthday is January 15th, but the federal holiday bearing his name is observed on the third yesterday of January.” For the record, the third yesterday of January would be the 3rd, I believe. Wait, what if on the 1st you refer to the day before, would that make the 2nd the 3rd yesterday? Why don’t we just move on.
There are results of religious organizations’ sites where the word ‘ass’ had been replaced by the word ‘butt,’ with hilarious consequences: Ambbuttador to the UN, the buttailant, when John Hinkley tried to buttbuttinate President Reagan, the bbutt guitar, and the famous artist Pablo Picbutto. You can imagine what happened to names like Cassandra, Cassie, or Cassiopeia. And don’t even think of replacing ‘tit’ with ‘breast.’ What happens then when you have to mention the U.S. Consbreastution?
My favorite though, comes from Reuters article in 2006. It had been quickly corrected, but not before someone saved a screen shot. They had replaced any mention of ‘the queen’ with ‘Queen Elizabeth,’ which sounds innocent enough, until they ran an article about the genetics of bees. “Queen Elizabeth has 10 times the lifespan of workers and lays up to 2000 eggs a day.”
In most cases, trouble can be avoided by stipulating that the change only applies to particular words. That would avoid all instances of the same letter combination occurring within another word.
There are other traps for the unwary, one being autocorrect. I have the 2003 version of Word, and it’s grammar is horrendous. It consistently gets ‘its’ and ‘it’s’ wrong, and seems confused by the apostrophe. One time I had written “. . . the idea being to lower costs for the rest of us . . .” and it suggested “we.” Another time it suggested “they” in the sentence, “People can make themselves believe anything.” It’s just awful. I call it my special needs Word. It’s still handy for showing me when I run two words together or hit a wrong key.
We should keep in mind that a spell checker is only as good as its word list. Have you ever heard of the Cupertino effect? Early word lists had the word ‘co-operation,’ but for some reason not ‘cooperation,’ so often it would suggest ‘Cupertino,’ which is a city in California. How and why would Cupertino be in a word list? That’s where the headquarters of Apple is located. There are still old UN, NATO, or EU documents floating around with wording like “The Southern Asian Association for Regional Cupertino.” There’s an even better one, though, from a South African Development Community communiqué: “The Heads of State and Government congratulates SATCC for the crucial role it plays in strengthening copulation and accelerating the implementation of regional programs in this strategic sector.” I would submit that copulation does require some degree of, uh, Cupertino.
You have to pay attention to what the autocorrect is suggesting, that’s all. In one case ‘highfalutin’ had been replaced with ‘high flatulent,’ so that a Wall Street blog ran the following from an old debate with John Kerry and John Edwards, which had Edwards supposedly saying “Rhetoric is not enough. High flatulent language is not enough.” I actually like this one, especially for the present day, when we have a flatulent President with diarrhea of the mouth, constipation of the brain, and hair the color of warm piss.
There was an Italian food blog in 2000 whose recipe included prosciutto, provolone, and pine nuts, among other ingredients. At one point it advised readers to “Stir in the prostitute” (I’m sorry, that was supposed to be prosbreastute). Its word list didn’t include ‘prosciutto.’ In another case, the word ‘socialist’ was recommended for ‘socialite.’
All this makes me wonder; don’t any of these blogs and news agencies have proofreaders? Maybe it’s because of budget cuts. They can’t afford both a proofreader and a fact checker. These kinds of things aren’t anything new, though, only the technology has changed. A 1631 edition of the King James Bible printed 1000 copies. In the Ten Commandments section, the wording was “Thou shalt commit adultery . . .” It became known as the Wicked Bible or the Adulterer’s Bible, and of course it’s a collector’s item. One copy is currently available on an antique Bible site for $89,500.
I guess the moral of our story is to always check your work. I’m reminded of the line by Morpheus in “The Matrix,” when he said “You have to focus, Trinity.” Wise words. You can always ignore the suggestions. Remember, when writing, you should feel enbreastled to the very best you can offer. You don’t want to embarrbutt yourself, do you?