March 09, 2006

The Cupertino effect

It turns out that the modern affliction of spellcheckers wreaking havoc on unsuspecting documents has been given a name. Following a tip from commenter Qaminante on Languagehat, I discovered that runaway spellchecking has been dubbed "the Cupertino effect," at least among writers and translators for the European Union. As Qaminante explains, the common misspelling of cooperation as cooperatino leads some spellcheckers to suggest a change to Cupertino. (One EU writer claims that the Cupertino change can even happen to the word cooperation if the word processor's custom dictionary only has the hyphenated form co-operation. However, I find it difficult to believe that many custom dictionaries out there include Cupertino but not unhyphenated cooperation.)

This isn't a concern for users of Microsoft Word in its recent versions, since cooperation is the first suggestion given for cooperatino, not to mention coperatino, coperation, cuperation, coopertion, and various other typos. (You have to go all the way to cuperatino or cupertion before Word will suggest Cupertino.) In fact, if you're using the default Autocorrect settings for Word, it will automatically change cooperatino (and most of the other misspellings) to cooperation before you've even noticed the mistake. Nonetheless, the Cupertino carnage has been substantial, particularly for documents produced by the EU and other international organizations.

Here's a brief sampling of the hundreds of Cupertinos one can find on the ".int" domain used by international groups like the UN, the EU and NATO:

Within the GEIT BG the Cupertino with our Italian comrades proved to be very fruitful. (NATO Stabilisation Force, "Atlas raises the world," 14 May 2003)

The fact that Secretary General Robertson is going to join this session this afternoon in the European Union headquarters gives you already an idea of how close and co-ordinated this Cupertino is and this action will be. (NATO Press Point, 19 Mar. 2001)

Safe blood transfusion services are being addressed in Freetown and Lungi, using WHO RB funds in Cupertino with the Red Cross Society of Sierra Leone and in Bo by MSF/Belgium. (WHO/EHA report on Sierra Leone, 1 May 2000)

Could you tell us how far such policy can go under the euro zone, and specifically where the limits of this Cupertino would be? (European Central Bank press conference, 3 Nov. 1998)

Co-ordination with the World Bank Transport and Trade Facilitation Programme for South East Europe will be particularly important in the area of trade facilitation and shall be conducted through regular review mechanisms and direct Cupertino. (European Agency for Reconstruction, "Focal area: Justice and home affairs")

A consistent and efficient tax reform approach also will facilitate the shoring up broader EU and G-7 support for similar reform strategies -- this in turn would make international Cupertino easier. (European Parliament, "Towards a Re-Orientation of National Energy Policies in the EU? - Germany as a Case Study")

Conservation of the ecological system can be achieved by agreements, Cupertino, compensation (incentives), etc. with landowners or users of an area. ... . It was an interesting feature during this phases that both at the national and local levels, permanent and constructive means of Cupertino were built between the directorates and the civil society. ... Special voluntary management contracts or Cupertino with land users are also an excellent ways to conserve these areas. (Council of Europe, "Report on the establishment of the National Ecological Network and the status of its national programme in Hungary")

And so on and so forth. An expert in the history of word processing could probably trace the origin and spread of this spellchecker scourge. What is Cupertino doing in so many custom dictionaries around the world anyway? Could it have anything to do with the fact that the northern California city of Cupertino is home to the worldwide headquarters of Apple as well as various other Silicon Valley companies? Neither Microsoft (makers of Word) nor the various owners of WordPerfect (Borland, Novell, Corel) have a Cupertino connection, however.

One possible clue comes from "The Macintosh Secret Tricks List" (a list of  so-called "easter eggs") circulated among Mac users in January 1993. Someone noticed that if supression (sic) was typed in Microsoft Word 4.0 for the Mac, then the spellchecker would include Cupertino among its suggestions. The contributor speculated that this might be "secret Apple-bashing." I highly doubt that this represents some sort of anti-Apple easter egg, since even current versions of Microsoft Word for Windows will include Cupertino as an alternative to such misspellings as supretion (though no longer supression). The spellchecking algorithm seems to be making suggestions based on the possibility that initial s could actually represent initial c, and that the bigrams re and on could have been accidentally flipped from er and no respectively. But at least this establishes that Cupertino has been lurking in Microsoft's custom dictionaries since at least 1989 (when Word 4 for Mac was released).

[Update #1: On Languagehat, Qaminante also wrote:

[T]he best [spellcheck error] I ever came across was a report stating that "Albania was very interested in concluding a customs copulation agreement"! The author, who is a native Spanish-speaker, claims she typed "coperation" and got this from spellcheck.

At first I found this a little hard to believe, but searching on the ".int" domain finds at least two instances of improper "copulation":

The Heads of State and Government congratulated SATCC for the crucial role it plays in strengthening copulation and accelerating the implementation of regional programmes in this strategic sector. (Southern African Development Community, Communique from the 1982 SADC Summit)

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. (International Organization for Migration, Foreign Ministers Meeting, 22 Nov. 2004)

Now that's embarrassing.]

[Update #2: Qaminante emails to explain that what was meant in the IOM passage was actually "the pan-European system of diagonal cumulation." So my guess is that copulation in this case emerged as the spellcheckified version of the misspelling comulation.]

[Late update, 10/02/06: For proof that Cupertino could actually be generated by a spellchecker unable to recognize unhyphenated cooperation, see here.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at March 9, 2006 04:21 PM