January 25, 2008

Depending on the kindness of spellcheckers

From the Cupertino mailbag comes a note from Charles Belov, who writes in with a spellchecker-induced slipup that made its way into a work of literary criticism from a major American publisher. The following appears in Still Acting Gay by John M. Clum (St. Martin's Press, 2000), page 122:

(Image from Google Book Search.)

I don't think there's any way to read this passage charitably — as opposed to this blog post where "A Stretcher Named Desire" is used as a playful reference to the artist Frank Stella's stretcher-shaped creations, or this satirical piece from the University of Oregon newspaper in the late '70s reviewing a performance of "Kafka's only humorous play" entitled "Over the Roar of the Greasepaint, I Heard the One Who Flew Over the Loon's Nest Call Me Jean Brodie On a Stretcher Named Desire." There's nothing jocular about the use of Stretcher for Streetcar in Clum's book, so it does seem to be, as Belov puts it, an "obvious Cupertino" (and "one more item of proof that proofreading in commercial book publishing has gone downhill in the last 10-15 years").

Streetcar appears properly elsewhere in the text (even later in the same paragraph), so this isn't a case of a spellchecker not recognizing a correctly spelled word, leading to the wholesale substitution of one word with another. Rather, this appears to be that subspecies of Cupertino wherein a single misspelling is "incorrected" thanks to a spellchecker suggestion. (Compare, for instance, the recent case of "GOP cell phones" from the Associated Press.) Stretcar is the most obvious suspect for a typo that could be changed to Stretcher, though the few spellcheckers I tried either give no suggestions for Stretcar or correctly suggest Streetcar.

Feel free to send your own Cupertino discoveries to bgzimmer at ling dot upenn dot edu.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at January 25, 2008 08:41 AM