Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Cupertino Effect

In one of the essays in her wonderful collection "Ex Libris", Anne Fadiman writes about the proofreading gene that runs in her family, and how her family members enjoyed nothing better than playing 'find the typo' in whatever document was to hand - newspapers, restaurant menus, travel brochures, or just signs in shop windows. I think it's entirely plausible that spelling ability has a genetic component - my experience is that people either have little difficulty with spelling, or they have major difficulties. There doesn't appear to be any particular link with intelligence - some of the worst spellers I've ever known have been extraordinarily smart, and to suggest that mastery of spelling implies any broader talent doesn't seem warranted.

For the record, everyone in my family can spell. My sister remarked to me recently that, had she not chosen medicine, she could have had a career in proofreading, because typos just 'leap off the page' to claim her attention. I have the same experience, even in a document being read by someone across from me, typos leap out at me, even when they are upside down. (Of course, internet comeuppance pretty much guarantees that this post will contain at least one egregious error before I'm done, but that can't be helped).

All of which means that I have never used a spell-checker, and thus have never fallen victim to the Cupertino effect. What's the Cupertino effect, you ask? It's the phenomenon that happens when over-reliance on spellcheckers results in the substitution of the word "Cupertino" for "cooperation" in a document. This specific substitution is believed to be particularly common in European Union documents; the document at this link contains several fine examples in the last five paragraphs.

By extension, the inappropriate substitution could be any word from the spellchecker list. For instance, a recent AP article, renamed the U.S. presidential candidates in relatively amusing fashion:

"Gore told the AP he hoped the speech would contribute to "a new political environment in this country that will allow the next president to do what I think the next president is going to think is the right thing to do." He said both fellow Democrat Barrack Abeam and Republican rival John moccasin are "way ahead" of most politicians in the fight against global climate change.

moccasin, who supports building more nuclear power plants as one solution to global warming, said Thursday he admires Gore as an early and outspoken advocate of addressing the global warming problem even though "there may be some aspects of climate change that he and I are in disagreement (on)."

– Dino Capiello, "Gore: Carbon-free electricity in 10 years doable", AP (17 July 2008)
discussed by Mark Liberman on Language Log, July 28, 2008.

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