When Spellcheckers Attack: Perils of the Cupertino Effect
Dictionaries, for all their virtues, can sometimes be troublemakers. Ever since the dawn of word processing, dictionaries have been mined to create wordlists for automated spellcheckers. (OUP, for example, offers its own spellchecker on CD-ROM in addition to licensing its dictionary data for various handheld devices and software add-ons.) These dictionary-derived inventories are used to detect and correct spelling errors, by checking to see if the words in a user’s text match what’s found in the wordlist. If an error is detected, algorithms help decide what the user might have meant to type and alternatives are suggested from the accepted list of words. Of course, a spellchecker is only as good as its wordlist and its correction algorithms. Anyone who has spellchecked a document is familiar with the laughably incongruous suggestions that are sometimes provided. And every once in a while incautious users allow these laughers to get through to their final text.
Writers and translators for the European Union even have a name for this affliction of the electronic age: the Cupertino effect. Some older spellcheckers had wordlists containing co-operation but not cooperation without the hyphen. So when a user typed in unhyphenated cooperation, the spellchecker would flag it as an error. The first suggestion thrown up was not co-operation, however, but Cupertino, the name of a city in northern California. (I didn’t quite believe that a spellchecker dictionary could include Cupertino but not cooperation until I saw it with my own eyes.) Sure enough, there are dozens of Cupertinos to be found in online documents from the UN, EU, NATO, and other international organizations. “The Cupertino with our Italian comrades proved to be very fruitful,” a German NATO officer was quoted as saying. Meanwhile, the EU’s Scientific and Technical Research Committee proposed “stimulating cross-border Cupertino.”
Though spellcheckers no longer routinely substitute Cupertino for cooperation, the Cupertino effect is on constant display, even in carefully edited newspapers and magazines. By now we’re all familiar with comedian Stephen Colbert’s famous neologism truthiness. But when Alessandra Stanley reviewed the premiere of “The Colbert Report” for the New York Times in October 2005, truthiness was still a lexical oddity (though an older sense of the word can, in fact, be found in the Oxford English Dictionary). When the Times hit the newsstands, Colbert’s truthiness had somehow been transformed in Stanley’s review into trustiness. It’s a rather inexplicable substitution, unless you happen to notice that trustiness is the first suggestion given by Microsoft Word and other word processing software for truthiness, a word not (yet) in their vocabularies.
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. (Thanks to the corrections blog Regret The Error for many of these examples.)
Sometimes the Cupertino effect is triggered by a misspelling of a common word. For instance, if you leave the first letter off of identified, you run the risk of your spellchecker changing the word to dentrified. Another prevalent example is aquatinted, which has often been suggested by spellcheckers when a user leaves the c out of the word acquainted. So if you see folks online saying they want to “get aquatinted,” you can bet that they’re Cupertino victims and not people who want to be etched with nitric acid!
The leading software companies have steadily been improving their spellcheckers by expanding their wordlists and fine-tuning their algorithms, so many older Cupertino-isms have thankfully fallen by the wayside. On the Office Natural Language Team Blog, you can read about recent strides made by the Microsoft Office team, most notably the introduction of a “contextual speller” for Microsoft Office 2007. But no matter how much the techies tinker, I suspect the Cupertino effect will always be with us in one form or another. 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.”
Ben Zimmer is an editor at Oxford University Press and a true word junkie. Once a week he surfaces from his dictionaries to write this column. Check out his “words of the week” on our main page (center column) or by clicking here.