Today’s NY Times has a funny article by Diana Jean Schemo about the problems people encounter offering misspelled items on eBay. It starts with a woman who had no luck trying to sell “chandaleer” earrings and continues:

Such is the eBay underworld of misspellers, where the clueless — and sometimes just careless — sell labtop computers, throwing knifes, Art Deko vases, camras, comferters and saphires.
They do get bidders, but rarely very many. Often the buyers are those who troll for spelling slip-ups, buying items on the cheap and selling them all over again on eBay, but with the right spelling and for the right price. John H. Green, a jeweler in Central Florida, is one of them.
Mr. Green once bought a box of gers for $2. They were gears for pocket watches, which he cleaned up and put back on the auction block with the right spelling. They sold for $200. “I’ve bought and sold stuff on eBay and Yahoo that I bought for next to nothing” because of poor spelling or vague descriptions, he said.
David Scroggins, who lives in Milwaukee, also searches for misspellings. His company provides entertainment for weddings and corporate events, and microphone systems for shows at Wisconsin’s casinos. He has bought Hubbell electrical cords for a 10th of their usual cost by searching for Hubell and Hubbel. And he now operates his entire business by laptop computers, having bought three Compaqs for a pittance simply by asking for Compacts instead.

There is a pointed illustration of the perils of using Google as your spellchecker:

Ms. Marshall, who lives in Dallas, said she knew she was on shaky ground when she set out to spell chandelier. But instead of flipping through a dictionary, she did an Internet search for chandaleer and came up with 85 or so listings.
She never guessed, she said, that results like that meant she was groping in the spelling wilderness. Chandelier, spelled right, turns up 715,000 times.

Some people take misspellings into account when offering items for sale:

Warren Lieu of Houston, who was selling hunting and fishing knives on eBay recently, covered all the bases: his listing advertised every sort of alphabetic butchery, including knifes and knive.
Mr. Lieu, a computer programmer, keeps a list of common misspellings, including labtop for laptop and Cusinart for Cuisinart.
His strategy of listing multiple spellings, he said, is based on his experience as a buyer. “I’m a bad speller myself,” he said. So his mistakes in searching for items led him to realize that he could buy up bargains.
“I’d go ahead and deliberately misspell it when I searched for items,” he said.
Jim Griffith, whose official title at eBay is dean of eBay education, teaches 40 to 50 seminars a year around the country. Although the auction house flags common misspellings online, Mr. Griffith said, the most common question he gets is, “When will eBay get a spell checker?” His answer? “You go to a store called a bookstore, and you buy something called a dictionary.”

(Thanks to Bonnie for the link.)


  1. There is a pointed illustration of the perils of using Google as your spellchecker
    As one who very often does, I am very well aware that 85 hits is not a consensus, and that Google underlines real (Engleesh) words on its “Searched the web for” bar, with links to a dictionary site. And for that example it even offers “Did you mean: chandelier?”
    I have a two volume Shorter OED (the old one) by my desk, and online access to the full OED, but I still use Google (or the built in Emacs checker, if I’m in Emacs) more often than either.

  2. Boy, if Mrs. Unumb in 8th grade had only had this article!

  3. Well, with all the varients, the OED isn’t too helpful. Most people aren’t too impressed when you explain that “Laurence Sterne used that spelling”.
    I use Google as a spell-checker if I have two spellings. One time the two came out close to even, but I can’t remember which word it was.
    Electronic editing and spell-checking is presumably to blame for the increase inerrata in academic books. They catch the non-words but not the wrong words. I just read a sentence whose meaning was changed significantly by leaving out a comma.

  4. Google is a great spell-checker and memory-refresher as to the usual wording of idioms. It’s just like anything else, though: you have to know how to use it.—And even then: I kept remembering pince nez as prince nez; I used Google not to check the spelling, but to find pictorial examples to refresh my memory as to how, exactly, they worked and looked, and was astonished to find only 15 or so hits. (Ooh. Since then, apparently, a Squirrel Nuts Zipper song has hit the lyrics website circuit.)

    I have no idea why I’d thought they were prince nez. Some joke on some royal’s name, maybe, who’d first made nose-pinching spectacles façonnable.

  5. jean-pierre says

    Two points I’d like to make;
    1. When I was in the Army, as a finance clerk, I’d often come across the most atrocious mis-spellings, even of words which I considered the simplest. The few times I dared to point some of them out, they were shrugged off, someone saying, “Well, what can you expect, this is the Army!” (As if to say, we are supposed to live down to our reputation (for ignorance?)
    2. One might also be advised to beware depending on Google for getting the facts straight. I’ve come across sites of the most fantastically revised history — e.g. Aryan supremacist sites which underplay or deny the Holocaust.

  6. scarabaeus stercus says

    Two thoughts come to mind about reading and is it true wot I read:
    one by Sir Francis Bacon
    ‘Read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted… but to weigh and consider.’
    another :
    ‘did say tell a lie often enough, it becomes the truth’ from another body of the 30’s goebels [’tis how i remember it].

  7. It isn’t just spelling. My friend was making a fair amount of money buying and selling camera parts. Often people would incorrectly identify the part. He could often make money simply by relisting the item with better photos and layout. Of course, this attention from the NY times has probably already made it harder to earn money this way. Things became difficult for my friend as soon as some large camera stores started hiring people to eBay full time.

  8. In 9th grade a guy I knew flunked a test because he consistently wrote “Flase” for “False”. He may have been doing it on purpose. He took the test to get into the Army four times during the Vietnam War, and passed the fourth time as they lowered standards. He came back alive.

  9. Two data points about spell-checkers in general:
    1. They can never stop a correct word from being used in the wrong place.
    A common spelling mistake amongst Americans is to substitute “then” for “than” (e.g. “better then this”).
    It’s an accent thing.
    2. American spell-checkers generally ban the word “towards” and insist upon “toward“.
    It’s a dialect thing.

  10. The crucial point of eBay is the search engine. I thought it incorporated a “close spelling” feature which gave you items that were one or two characters away from the search term. But maybe not.
    In any case Chandaleer would get you nowhere.

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