Ben Zimmer has another splendid post at OUPBlog, this one on the sad results of relying uncritically on spellchecking software. Here’s a set of examples:

Foreign words and phrases are easy prey for the Cupertino effect, as when a California lawyer submitted a brief in which the Latin phrase sua sponte (‘of one’s own accord’) had unfortunately been changed to sea sponge, or when Reuters referred to Pakistan’s Muttahida Quami Movement as the Muttonhead Quail Movement. Unusual proper names are also potential pitfalls. The New York Times once changed the first name of football player DeMeco Ryans to Demerol, while the Rocky Mountain News rendered Leucadia National Corp. as La-De-Da. And the New Scientist recently reported on a spellchecker fiasco in a Contemporary Sociology review article: contributors’ last names were changed from Gareis to Agrees, Beavais to Beavers, Gerstel to Gretel, and Sarkisian to Sardinian.

The title of my post comes from the end of his:

It’s best to heed the warning given by the Denver Post after it was embarrassed by an errant spellchecker:
One sympathetic journalism expert said yesterday that spellcheck can be an editor’s enemy, “as Voldemort is to Harry Potter.” Or as our spellchecker would have it, “as Voltmeter is to Harry Potter.”


  1. This isn’t about spellcheckers, but I thought you’d enjoy this amusing transcription error:
    (of a narcotics officer) “Stopping 30 cars a day on the highways was routine for Cooper and his K-9 companion.”

  2. Actually, K-9 is a more or less official designation for Military Working Dogs.

  3. Charles Perry says

    The very spelling “Muttahida Quami” fills me with a vague sense of despair. It should be Muttahida Qaumi (meaning National Unity or something of the sort), but the party’s own website spells Qaumi as Quami. Are its translators so under the spell of the Latin qu convention, or are they themselves victims of some spellchecker?

  4. I’m reminded of a friend at university who used an automatic spellechecker and ended up turning in a term paper about the novels of Bernard Malamute.

  5. “Spellechecker.” How ironic.

  6. Charles, I had the same thought about “Quami” in this Language Log post.

  7. Ben Tamlyn says

    This might be a bit off-topic, but perhaps you or your readers could shed some light on the expression “ten-twenty-thirty,” which I found in the short story “Head and Shoulders,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, first published in the early Twenties or perhaps late in the decade before that. (The Web site didn’t allow me to post the term I originally wrote here to communicate the idea of “late in the decade that was prior to the Twenties” due to “questionable content.”)
    Quote follows.
    “I knew a girl,” said Marcia reminiscently, “who went on the ten-twenty-thirty when she was sixteen. She was so stuck on herself that she could never say ‘sixteen’ without putting the ‘only’ before it.”
    Ben Tamlyn

  8. I don’t know this story, but ten-twenty-thirties were stage melodramas for the masses in the days before movies, so called because admission was ten, twenty or thirty cents, within reach of working people. So it would mean she was acting in a second rate touring company. Does that fit the overall context?

  9. Ben Tamlyn says

    Hi, MMcM, this fits the context exactly, because the Marcia character in the story is a popular stage actress. Thank you!

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