How Spellcheckers Wreak Havoc

Posted by Mark Peters

"I apologize for any incontinence" and other examples of the Cupertino effect

Several years ago, a coworker sent me an email that included this memorable expression of apology: "I'm sorry for any incontinence." Needless to say, so was I.But did my colleague really lose control of his bowels or bladder, and then decide to tell me about it through email? Doubtful. In reality, I am sure this dude and the word inconvenience were victims of the Cupertino effect, also known as spellchecker errors or "Damn, I thought I could trust my computer's suggestions and automatic changes." Though the algorithms behind spellcheckers are constantly improving, it's unlikely they'll ever be infallible, which is alright with me, because the Cupertino effect is up there with Eric Cartman and funny monkey videos as a time-tested humor-producer.This type of error is called the Cupertino effect because an old version of spell-check (in Word 97) used to offer Cupertino-the name of a northern California city that is home to Apple-as the first suggestion to replace the word cooperation, which in British English is supposed to have a hyphen. That strange replacement produced bizarre phrases that can still be found in places like the United Nations website, which features intriguing phrases ("…teaching and learning methods that stress participation, Cupertino, problem-solving and respect for differences…") and lofty goals ("…the strengthening of international peace and Cupertino, should emanate from adults and be instilled in children…"). These words would inspire us all if they didn't sound so batty.The Cupertino effect is an equal-opportunity screw-up, afflicting international organizations, hapless students, and respected publications alike. Cupertino struck The New York Times just after the debut episode of The Colbert Report, when the not-yet-famous word truthiness was misprinted as trustiness (perhaps foreshadowing how trusty the word would be in this slippery age). On the Boston Globe blog, Christopher Shea mentions how he almost turned Professor Schnittker into Professor Schnitzer. (And I almost made the same mistake while editing this. Jesus!) Less humorously, a Cupertino-like havoc was caused by Excel, which changed the names of some genes that looked like dates-so DEC1 was renamed 1-DEC- making this tumor-suppressing gene irretrievable by searches.Speaking of names, they are particularly vulnerable to being Cupertino'd. According to some errors that popped up last year, Barack Obama did not defeat John McCain, but John Moccasin did lose to Barack Boatman. Ron Paul, Mike Huckabee, and Sam Brownback occasionally were transformed into Rot Paul, Mike Hoecake, and Sam Blowback, names more appropriate for movie stars in various genres. Visual Thesaurus Executive Producer Ben Zimmer has been a prime Cupertino collector, bringing many whacked-out examples to light. My favorites are Lord Voltmeter (Harry Potter's Lord Voldemort) and Muttonhead Quail Movement (Pakistan's Muttahida Quami Movement).I went fishing for Cupertinos myself, with one of my favorite names as bait: Plaxico Burress, or as I prefer to think of him, "the Rosa Parks of people who have shot themselves in the thigh in a nightclub," as dubbed by Stephen Colbert. Word 2007 offers Plaice, (a type of flatfish) as the first suggestion for Plaxico, and sure enough, there are many examples of Plaice Burress on the web, and even a few that muck up his first and last name, calling the wide receiver Plaice Burrs.These errors are a good argument for writer's paranoia: Don't trust your computer. Never let it do important stuff automatically. All features of word processing programs need to be monitored; some, like grammar check, are so unreliable that they deserve to be thrown off a cliff just before a boulder is thrown off the same cliff. As Mike Hoecake could tell you, if he existed, even something as wonderfully useful as spellchecker can make your readers laugh for the wrong reason.While I doubt the Cupertino chamber of commerce is excited that the city is synonymous with an error, I have a suggestion that may boost the city's image to loftier heights. Much like time-travelers, language columnists are supposed to observe and not meddle, but I have an idea that yearns to fly out of the moth's nest of my mind: I think we should take a cue from those original goofs and deliberately use Cupertino as a synonym for cooperation.‘Cause, come on, cooperation sounds pretty lame for such an essential of life; it could use a rebranding campaign, just like those sea kittens. Why not embrace the synonym that our computer overlords have forced on us?I hope I can count on your Cupertino in this matter (and in sharing any Cupertino goofs of your own in comments).