Spell-check is evil, but funny: The Cupertino Effect

I enjoyed Cory Doctorow’s BoingBoing post on the Cupertino Effect, “the technical term for a correct word that is consistently erroneously replaced by spell-checkers.” He links to Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words newsletter, which describes the origin of the term and gives some choice examples:

An automated spelling checker attached to a word-processing program is one of the curses of our times. In the hands of an inexperienced, over-hasty or ignorant user it readily perpetrates dreadful errors in the name of correctness. One example appeared in a piece in the New York Times in October 2005 about Stephen Colbert’s neologism truthiness: throughout it instead referred to trustiness, the first suggestion from the paper’s automated checking software….

In 2000 the second issue of Language Matters, a magazine by the European Commission’s English-language translators, included an article by Elizabeth Muller on the problem with the title Cupertino and After.

Cupertino, the city in California, is best known for hosting the headquarters of Apple Computers. But the term doesn’t come from the firm. The real source is spelling checkers that helpfully include the names of places as well as lists of words. In a notorious case documented by Ms Muller, European writers who omitted the hyphen from co-operation (the standard form in British English) found that their automated checkers were turning it into Cupertino. Being way behind the computing curve, I’m writing this text using Microsoft Word 97, which seems to be the offending software (more recent editions have corrected the error); in that, if you set the language to British English, cooperation does get automatically changed to Cupertino, the first spelling suggestion in the list. For reasons known only to God and to Word’s programmers, the obvious co-operation comes second.

Hence Cupertino effect for the phenomenon and Cupertino for a word or phrase that has been involuntarily transmogrified through ill-programmed computer software unmediated by common sense or timely proofreading.

A search through the Web pages of international organisations such as the UN and NATO (and, of course, the EU) finds lots of examples of the canonical error. A 1999 NATO report mentions the “Organization for Security and Cupertino in Europe”; an EU paper of 2003 talks of “the scope for Cupertino and joint development of programmes”; a UN report dated January 2005 argues for “improving the efficiency of international Cupertino”. And so on.

Other notorious examples of the Cupertino effect include an article in the Denver Post that turned the Harry Potter villain Voldemort into Voltmeter, one in the New York Times that gave the first name of American footballer DeMeco Ryans as Demerol, and a Reuters story which changed the name of the Muttahida Quami movement of Pakistan into the Muttonhead Quail movement.

My favorite example is the 2006 Reuters article about bees, captured in Craig Silverman’s Regret the Error blog:

With its highly evolved social structure of tens of thousands of worker bees commanded by Queen Elizabeth, the honey bee genome could also improve the search for genes linked to social behavior….

Queen Elizabeth has 10 times the lifespan of workers and lays up to 2,000 eggs a day….

Update: A new Cupertino reported in the Huffington Post:  “Burka Abeam” for Barack Obama in a newspaper photo caption.

Want more? Regret the Error has an entertaining list of 2008’s most notorious media errors and corrections.

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7 responses to “Spell-check is evil, but funny: The Cupertino Effect

  1. Thanks for a good laugh and some useful new words, Lisa:-) One Cupertino I have to watch out for is the replacement of SpecFic with “specific”. It wasn’t until I’d confused one blog reader so much that she asked what “specific” literature was that I even noticed it. However, being the world’s second worst typist, I will not type without spell check. At least it means I have real words in my writing instead of gobbledegook, even if they aren’t always the right ones!

  2. I always appreciate and learn from your posts. With Cory Doctorow (a favorite author) and spelling (my only talent) included, it feels like you’ve given me a little present. Thank you!

  3. Pingback: The Evil Repercussions of Spellcheck | Your Impact Matters

  4. I ran my recipe for Broccoli with Pancetta through the spell check. What I got back was quite another dish. – “Broccoli with Placenta”
    Think I’ll skip that one!

  5. Pingback: Cupertinos and crash blossoms and snowclones! Oh, my!

  6. Pingback: Sassafras and Dirty Words!!! | Life In The Realm of Fantasy

  7. Pingback: The CRAP test. | Library & Technology Center

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