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When Spellcheckers Attack: Perils of the Cupertino Effect

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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.”


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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.

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25 Responses to “When Spellcheckers Attack: Perils of the Cupertino Effect”
  1. Jeff says:

    A while back, I worked for the state of Alaska, which had a governor named Hickel. When I typed his name, my spell checker would offer me two suggestions: hickey and pickle.

  2. Scott Belyea says:

    My sympathy is limited.

    Now that we have good tools which allow us to reduce the burden of careful proofreading, we whine because we don’t like the results of not proofreading what the tools suggest …

  3. Tawnya Lou says:

    I’d hate to see this get “fixed”. As Scott suggests, good proofreading is all that’s required to catch it, and the it can be one of the bright spots in an otherwise dreary exercise. My family loves my new nickname, “Tuna Loaf”.

  4. Will says:

    Part of the problem, of course, is the supposition that sources such as newspapers (and I would go so far as to say the UN and other organizations that have an investment in clear communication) can save money by relying upon software instead of shouldering the expense of having a professional proofreader on staff. The results are, naturally, laughable.

    There is no substitute for a competent copy editor!

  5. Pete says:

    At the height of the Clinton scandal, a friend typed an email about about Clinton being a disgrace to the Whitehouse, but his TapSpell spell checker suggested he meant ‘whorehouse’

    (it should have been 2 words)

  6. Dave says:

    Ben the link for the Cupertino effect is broken. As a Canuck I’ll ask is it center or centre? Problems everywhere.

  7. Ben Zimmer says:

    Will: Even the most competent copy editors can be led astray by a spellchecker every now and then. You can bet the folks at the New York Times copy edit desk are no slouches, but there’s a whole book of outrageous errors that have appeared in their paper, Kill Duck Before Serving. You might also want to check out the “Ask the Editor” feature in the Times earlier this week, wherein editor Phil Corbett admits “we make a lot of mistakes.”

    Dave: Sorry to see that the link to the EU article about the Cupertino effect is no longer available. I’m checking with their webmaster to see if there’s still a link somewhere.

    UPDATE: Via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, I was able to find a PDF version of the EU article (Elizabeth Anne Muller, “Cupertino and After,” Language Matters, Sep. 2000, pp. 9-10).

  8. Scott Belyea says:

    “Even the most competent copy editors can be led astray by a spellchecker every now and then.”

    Hmmm … an interesting notion, but I don’t think I buy it. How can a spellchecker “lead me astray”?

    “…if you leave the first letter off of identified, you run the risk of your spellchecker changing the word to dentrified.”

    Good grief … “risk”?? You mean these crack copy editors see “dentrified” in place of “identified” and let it pass?

    Silliness …

  9. Phil says:

    When writing about my military experience in the Philippines, I typed Subic Bay. My spell check suggested Pubic, a Freudian alternative.

  10. Bob Rosenberg says:

    For a *very* long time–close to a decade and a half–and up to at least version 12, WordPerfect has responded to “Jersy” with

    Jerky
    Jerry
    Jersey
    Garcia
    . . .

    “Garcia”???

    Got to love that one.

  11. Jo Ashburn says:

    Just in case nobody has mentioned it, the probable reason Cupertino was in those spellcheckers to begin with is because that is where the Apple offices are located.

  12. Sven DiMilo says:

    I turned off Word’s spellchecker long ago. I’m a biologist, and my writing just stumps it too often. The last straw was when, in an article about the Sonoran mud turtle, it kept changing the specific epithet of Kinosternon sonoriense to “snootiness.”

  13. VL says:

    When I was in high school (like 20 years ago), there was a memo that was sent around that had a very obvious typo that was caused by the spellchecker. The memo read: “on [whatever date], there is to be no loitering in pubic areas due to preparation for evening events.”

  14. [...] Ben Zimmer’s blog on the Cupertino Effect has more examples, as does The Language Log. [...]

  15. [...] week’s column focused on the havoc that automated spellcheckers can wreak when a suggested [...]

  16. JD says:

    Working as a sub editor (copy editor) for a UK magazine, I often find American English spellings appearing in copy submitted by our (British) writers. The reason? Writers using a spellchecker based on an American dictionary and believing that they really have spelt ‘organise’ wrongly (for example). Either that or they run through and automatically ‘correct’ all their lovely British English spellings.

    Shudder.

  17. Mark says:

    I worked in a Government Prosecutions section for many years.

    Word spell checker would very sweetly ask me if I meant Persecutions section. Which of course the “clients” would have agreed with.

  18. Douglas2 says:

    In response to JP: I’m sure that it is not writers trusting an American spellchecker who spell “organize” with an “ize” ending. It is much more likely to be confident English spellers who override the incorrect correction provided by British editions of Microsoft Word, or less confident ones who nevertheless bother to look up the word in the OED or Fowlers.

  19. [...] è rimasto il termine effetto Cupertino: è descritto in dettaglio da Ben Zimmer nell’OUP blog, con un riferimento all’articolo in cui è apparso inizialmente. [...]

  20. [...] ma è rimasto il termine effetto Cupertino: è descritto in dettaglio da Ben Zimmer nell’OUP blog, con un riferimento all’articolo in cui è apparso inizialmente. [...]

  21. Jennifer says:

    A manager at a company I worked for had the last name “Erickson.” Spellcheck always changed to to “Erections.”

  22. [...] there is an official term for this – it’s called the Cupertino effect. Benjamin Zimmer of OUP says that when writers and translators for the European Union wrote “cooperation” [...]

  23. [...] Spelling. I am grateful for the generous comments on my post in the heartbreak series “The Oddest English Spellings.” Several years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Masha Bell at a congress in Coventry, and around that time I corresponded with Valerie Yule. A positive comment from Peter Demaere (Canada) reinforced my message. The situation is as odd as English spelling. Spelling reform had famous supporters from the start. Great linguists, including Walter W. Skeat and Otto Jespersen, and outstanding authors and public figures agreed that we should no longer spell the way we do. Unfortunately, after World War I humanity faced graver problems than the absurdity of English spelling and the discussion flagged. I left Coventry with the feeling that the public had again turned a sympathetic ear to our efforts, but, apparently, I was mistaken, for I am not aware of any progress made since that time. No one doubts that spelling melon and until with single letters, as opposed to mellow and till, is foolish, and so is distinguishing between scamp and skate, to give two random examples. Historical linguists explain that many rules are arbitrary; sometimes they are even the product of medieval and postmedieval ignorance. All major European languages occasionally reform their spelling, gingerly or radically, as the case may be. Apart from the changes introduced into American spelling (-ize, traveling, defense, color, mold, catalog, and so forth), very little has happened in this area since the eighteenth century. One such change was even detrimental: the possessive pronoun its has lost its apostrophe. I’ve never taught in Great Britain, but American students, who otherwise demonstrate a healthy and ineradicable disregard for the apostrophe (by ignoring it or putting it in a wrong place), insist on the eighteenth-century norm and usually spell it’s for it is and for the pronoun. Specialists know how much time and money is spent (wasted) on teaching both native speakers and foreigners the written image of English words, but they failed to launch a campaign like the one that destroyed the prestige of smoking and somewhat diminished the horrors of drunken driving. More’s the pity (and long live the spellchecker). [...]

  24. Sally Monk says:

    My android phone does this CONSTANTLY and incredibly inappropriately. I suppose I deserve this, since I live in Cupertino and worked in the tech industry for 30 years.

  25. [...] Cupertino effect is by no means limited to the word cooperation. The Oxford University Press also points out how the Cupertino Effect can rear its head when foreign words and proper nouns are involved. This [...]

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