March 05, 2006

Stumbling across the linguistic divide

Via Language Hat comes another tale of spellchecking run amok. The Recorder on presents for our amusement these passages from an opening brief by Santa Cruz practitioner Arthur Dudley to San Francisco's 1st District Court of Appeal:

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.

It is well settled that a trial court must instruct sea sponge on any defense, including a mistake of fact defense.

In five different places in the brief, Dudley's spellchecker put "sea sponge" in the place of the phrase sua sponte, Latin for "of one's own accord, voluntarily." Dudley corrected the brief after his own client (a former judge) asked for an explanation. But word got around to local attorneys in Santa Cruz, who now kid Dudley about the "sea sponge duty to instruct."

Dudley shouldn't feel too bad, though, since cross-linguistic spellchecking goofs are not uncommon even in the copy-edited prose of major newspapers.

Regret The Error is the go-to site for all manner of journalistic schadenfreude. Last November, RTE picked up this correction from the Denver Post:

Because of an editor's error, a sentence on page 8D on Tuesday in a story about Rockies prospect Hector Gomez buying a bus was changed from "On the back he put 'Los Peloteros' which in Spanish means 'The Ballplayers'" to "he put 'Los Plotters' which in Spanish means 'The Pallbearers.'"

The spellchecker-enabled substitution of peloteros with plotters is easy enough to understand, but how in the world did ballplayers transform into pallbearers? I don't think a spellchecker can be blamed for that one, since no common misspelling of ballplayers will yield pallbearers when run through Microsoft Word's spellcheck dictionary (as when acquainted is misspelled as aquainted and gets changed to aquatinted). Rather, this seems like an auditory error of some sort. I can imagine somebody in the newsroom yelling out, "What does peloteros mean in Spanish?" — then a Spanish speaker yells out ballplayers, which is misheard as pallbearers.

The Denver Post has run into other spellchecker problems recently, not just when copy-editing foreign terms. Proper names are also a big stumbling block for spellcheckers — for instance, when the New York Times changed DeMeco (first name of University of Alabama linebacker DeMeco Ryans) to Demerol, or when the Rocky Mountain News changed the corporate name of Leucadia to La-De-Da. On its Nov. 30, 2005 editorial page, the Denver Post managed a trifecta of name glitches:

Last week, Michael Scanning, an associate of lobbyist Jack Brimful and before that an aide to DeLay, pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe Ohio Rep. Bob Hey and other public officials in an investigation that centers on Brimful's activities.

Whoops... just replace Scanning with Scanlon, Brimful with Abramoff, and Hey with Ney. The Denver Post was self-effacing in its correction:

One sympathetic journalism expert said yesterday that spellcheck can be an editor's enemy, "as Voldemort is to Harry Potter."
Or as our spellchecker would have it, "as Voltmeter is to Harry Potter."
A lesson learned.

But even outdoing that triple error is a bollixed article recalled by Hard News author Seth Mnookin in an interview with Regret The Error. Before writing for Newsweek and Vanity Fair, Mnookin put in his time at the Palm Beach Post, where one of his articles was the victim of a massive spellchecking debacle involving both foreign words and proper names:

I was waking up early on Saturday to go visit some friends in New York. So I got up at 4 in the morning to go to the airport [and looked at the paper]. The story had gone through a spellchecker and since it was about a sculpture from Canada there were all these French Canadian words. The entire article was gibberish. Every single name — not just the name of the sculpture, but the name of the place it was coming from and everything — was just tuned [sic!] into gibberish.

I looked up the article on the Nexis database, and the damage was about as bad as Mnookin remembers:

"Gaps in Boca statue's cost hardly a joke" by Seth Mnookin
Palm Beach Post, October 17, 1998, p. 1A
The gallery owners who won a city endorsement to put a 7-foot-tall sculpture of a jester downtown, apparently misled officials about the cost of the art and their potential profit in the deal.
Owner Richard Lepanto, who runs Kitty's Gallery on East Palmetto Park Road with Claire Fontana, said he expects to make more than $50,000 if fund-raising efforts are successful.
In August, he told the city's Community Redevelopment Agency that the bronze sculpture would cost $265,000. He said he planned to raise twice that from local donors and donate half of everything raised to the American Heart Association.
But a gallery in Quebec that sells the same sculpture — Benevento by Canadian artist Nicole Tallinn — said the piece sells for $95,000 in Canadian dollars, or about $62,000 in American currency. ...
Tallinn, reached in Canada, said the piece sold for $95,000 Canadian when she first sold it several years ago. However, a bank manager at La Case Popular du Vex Quebec, who bought the first copy of Benevento in 1995, said the piece cost less than $75,000 Canadian, or less than $49,000 U.S. ...
''Of course it's going to cost more in Boca Raton than in Canada,'' said Sylvia Morin, a Deerfield Beach resident who is working with Kitty's Gallery.

Here is the redfaced correction the Palm Beach Post ran the next day:

Because of an editor's error in using a computer spelling program, names in a story about a jester sculpture in Boca Raton were misspelled in Saturday's Palm Beach Post. Kutty's Gallery owners are Richard Lapointe and Claire Fontaine. The name of the sculpture is Bienvenue and its artist is Nicole Taillon. A resident working with Kutty's Gallery is Sylvie Morin.

One can see some of the limitations of the Palm Beach Post's spellcheck dictionary: good with European place names (Benevento in Italy, Tallinn in Estonia), not so good with French greetings (bienvenue). But the printed correction didn't even mention one glaring cross-linguistic blunder: "La Case Popular du Vex Quebec," which is evidently a spellcheckified version of "La Caisse Populaire du Vieux-Québec." A caisse populaire is a form of credit union found throughout French Canada, while Vieux-Québec ("Old Québec") is the name of Québec City's historic district.

Quelle horreur. In comparison, Dudley got off relatively easily with his sea sponges.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at March 5, 2006 09:55 PM