October 31, 2005

Needling the Times

On the subject of spellchecker artifacts in the New York Times, the Boston Globe's Jan Freeman emails the following oddity from Maureen Dowd's piece in the Sunday Magazine, "What's a Modern Girl to Do?":

Cosmo is still the best-selling magazine on college campuses, as it was when I was in college, and the best-selling monthly magazine on the newsstand. The June 2005 issue, with Jessica Simpson on the cover, her cleavage spilling out of an orange croqueted halter dress, could have been June 1970.

Freeman writes: "I can't figure out what typo a spellchecker might turn into 'croqueted,' but I'm having trouble believing a human (two, three humans!) could miss this, too."

I'm not so sure a spellchecker can be faulted for this one. Dowd clearly meant crocheted, but using that word probably would not have bothered the spellchecker since it's common enough to be in the Microsoft Word custom dictionary (unlike, say, truthiness or DeMeco). And there's no likely candidate for a misrecognized typo here (unlike aquainted getting changed to aquatinted or amature to armature) — unless the typo was crocqueted, which is already pretty close to croqueted. Of course, if croqueted was in Dowd's copy to begin with, you can't blame the spellchecker for not recognizing that it was inappropriate for the context (though we can perhaps imagine a day when a superintelligent spellchecker would raise a red flag at collocating croqueted with halter dress).

Rather than spellchecker interference, this appears to be a simple mixup between two similar words of French origin. It's more of a malapropism than an eggcorn, since it's hard to imagine a semantic link between needlework and lawn games. There is in fact a rather obscure etymological connection: both crochet and croquet ultimately derive from Old French croche meaning "hook" (in one case referring to the hooked crochet needle and in the other to the crooked stick used in early forms of croquet). That at least explains the surface resemblance of the two words, differing only by digraphs (-ch- and -qu-) representing single consonants.

Still, as Freeman suggests, it is a bit surprising that this slipped past the copy editors at the Times. It's not an uncommon error in unedited text, as Google and Yahoo turn up scores of "croqueted sweaters" and the like — even after filtering out word lists, random text spam, and legitimate examples of croqueted (e.g., "I should have croqueted the Queen's hedgehog just now" from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland). A search on eBay auctions currently finds 14 crocheted items described as croqueted, with another 21 sold by eBay Stores. But we do hold Maureen Dowd and her editors to a higher standard than eBay vendors. What's more, this is in a piece for the Sunday Magazine, where the editing process is presumably more deliberate than it is for the daily paper.

Bonus dormitat Homerus. Far more outrageous errors have been published and corrected by the Times, as lovingly recounted in the book Kill Duck Before Serving. Here are two of my favorites (both also noted by Slate's Jack Shafer):

May 30, 1993
Because of a transmission error, an interview in the Egos & Ids column on May 16 with Mary Matalin, the former deputy manager of the Bush campaign who is a co-host of a new talk show on CNBC, quoted her incorrectly on the talk show host Rush Limbaugh. She said he was "sui generis," not "sweet, generous."

April 7, 1995
Because of a transcription error, an article about Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato's remarks about Judge Lance A. Ito misquoted the Senator at one point. In his conversation with the radio host Don Imus, he said: "I mean, this is a disgrace. Judge Ito will be well-known." He did not say, "Judge Ito with the wet nose."

[Update, 4:40 PM: Perhaps someone on the Times editorial staff reads Language Log, since croqueted has been changed to crocheted in the online version of Dowd's essay. Details here.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at October 31, 2005 12:35 AM