Otto Kurrect Rides Again

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Pickles is used with the permission of Brian Crane, the Washington Post Writers Group and the Cartoonist Group. All rights reserved.

We’ve all been there: you’re quickly texting a friend to meet for lunch at Morsel Compass, and they receive an invitation to lunch at Mortal Combat. Or you receive an email praising the vampire’s calls at the ball game. Whoops! This is auto-correct in action—a blessing and a curse at the same time—trying to “help” us with its mindless, robotic offerings. 

Typos and other errors have long managed to find their way into print, but the advent of word processing in the late 1990s—with its attendant spell-check programs—introduced a new kind of error that has to be known as the Cupertino. The “Cupertino effect” occurs when an auto correction program on a computer or mobile device erroneously replaces words that are not in its dictionary—whether they be correctly spelled words or accidental typos—with the closest estimate it can come up with, often resulting in nonsense. The origin of the term refers to the replacement of the unhyphenated word “cooperation” with “Cupertino” by older spell checkers with dictionaries containing only the hyphenated version, “co-operation.” Cupertino is a small city in California, best known for being the home of Apple Inc. Of course that word would be in the computer’s dictionary, right?

Of course, built-in dictionaries and predictive text have improved a lot since this phenomenon was named—but they still don’t recognize many foreign phrases, names, advanced vocabulary, or, of course, human ID-10-T errors. Sometimes, if one is typing fast, using fat fingers on a small phone, or (heaven forbid) dictating, absurd and often hilarious results are commonplace. For example, when a user misspells the word “definitely” as “definatly,” the auto-correct program changes the word to “defiantly.” The machine’s eager attempts to think for us rapidly become sources of hilarity—or worse, embarrassment. 

The solution is to proofread everything you type or text before sending it—but who has time for that? Auto-correction can be disabled by the user, but since it often proves useful, that’s a tough decision. For example, if I accidentally type sned, the handy computer will correct it to send. I appreciate when it fixes the many typos I make when typing fast—such as vacatoin to vacation or stduy to study—so I am loathe to disable it. I am actually grateful for spell check… until it changes Carroll to casserole or Voldemort to Voltmeter, and then I begin cursing it!

I’ve encountered this problem too many times to count. With the u key right beside the i, I have been known to ask if someone received my previous emu? When my sister sent me a hand-me-down jacket, she proudly informed me that it came from Norman Marcus. My granddaughters’ floaties become Flossie’s (don’t even get me started on auto-correct’s penchant for adding an apostrophe indiscriminately to all plurals!). Try texting yoo hoo or muckety muck, and you’ll get yoo goo, you top, or mockery must. If I report that a friend complains ad infinitum, it becomes ad infinitude. When a friend mentioned the Fatwah against Salman Rushdie, it came out as Fat wash. In 2005, ABC News announced that Quaker Maid Meats Inc. said it would voluntarily recall 94,400 pounds of frozen ground beef panties that may be contaminated with E. coli (www.poynter.org/tag/regret-the-error). And the New Zealand Herald ran a story with Saddam Hussein’s name rendered as Saddam Hussies! These statements are iPad facto—oops, I mean ipso facto—absurd. 

Ben Zimmer, an American linguist, lexicographer, and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal, has been tracking real-life Cupertinos on his Language Log for years languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu. Here are some of his most side-splitting examples (as cataloged on mentalfloss.com).

Queen Elizabeth has ten times the lifespan of workers and lays up to 2,000 eggs a day.” That Queen Bee got a major promotion! (Reuters, in a 2006 article on the genome of the honey bee) 

“The Western Balkan countries confirmed their intention to further liberalise trade amongst each other. They requested that they be included in the pan-european system of diagonal copulation, which would benefit trade and economic development.” Didn’t they mean cooperation?
(International Organization for Migration, Foreign Ministers Meeting, 22 Nov. 2004) 

“Clips of former President Bill Clinton and former candidate John Edwards are also used. ‘Rhetoric is not enough. High flatulent language is not enough,’ says Edwards from a debate appearance.” Was their high-falutin’ language that windy? (from a 2008 Wall Street Journal Blog) 

Names are particularly susceptible to the Cupertino effect: “Because of an editing error, a sports article in some copies on Sunday about the University of Alabama’s 6-3 football victory over the University of Tennessee misstated the given name of a linebacker who is a leader of the Alabama defense. He is DeMeco Ryans, not Demerol.” Let’s hope he doesn’t use it, either! (from a correction in the New York Times) 

 “The opposition blames the government and the pro-government Muttonhead Quail Movement (MQM), which runs Karachi, for the violence.” Members of Muttahida Quami might not appreciate being called muttonheads. (Reuters).

“An appropriate instruction limiting the judge’s criminal liability in such a prosecution must be given sea sponge explaining that certain acts or omissions by themselves are not sufficient to support a conviction.” Sua Sponte is the Latin legal term for “of one’s own accord.” (from a legal brief in a San Francisco appeals court) 

“An early version of an Associated Press story about the David Petraeus resignation and ensuing scandal mistakenly referred to Jill Kelley as a socialist rather than a socialite.” The height of irony?

“Crumble bread sticks into a mixing bowl. Cover with warm water. Let soak for 2 to 3 minutes or until soft. Drain. Stir in prostitute, provolone, pine nuts, 1/4 cup oil, parsley, salt, and pepper. Set aside” (from a recipe for Braciola posted in 2000 on a Yahoo Italian food forum—and it’s still there!). That is some really spicy prosciutto! This one is my all-time favorite.

The Cupertino effect is magnified manyfold when we use the new voice recognition software to dictate emails and texts. A convenient idea that has not yet been perfected usually results in gobbledy gook. When I dictated “Major traffic on Rio Rd,” my helpful phone recorded “Major traffic on wild rose.” When I offered to give away a “waist-high dresser,” I ended up offering a “waste tie director.” And when a friend dictated, “I’m on a Great Lakes Cruise without reliable access to email,” his addressee received the truism, “I’m on a Great Lakes Cruise with a female.” Let’s hope it was his wife!

I’m sure you have many similar examples of your own—we could make a game out of who has the silliest. Technology run amok? Maybe. But entertaining all the same. After fighting with my phone over all this, I need a strawberry marshy—I mean, margarita! 

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